My journey in writing scripts began in inauspicious circumstance. My sixth grade English teacher, Mrs. Lehnhart, assigned a group project. The project had us in a group of 3 or 4 and writing short five-minute play to be performed in front of the rest of the class. I was grouped with my then best friend Matt and his then-girlfriend, Erin. I came up with an idea. I convinced my group members that it would be the best thing ever. Matt matched my enthusiasm. Erin seemed uninterested but willing to go along with the idea. It would be a comedic mystery with a lot of theatrical production including sound effects, a score, and some special effects.
I worked like mad on creating the story first that would combine all the elements of the comedic greatness of Mel Brooks, Pee Wee Herman, and John Lovitz with the deft wit and suspense of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Donald J. Sobol. Taking parts of Sherlock Holmes, Young Frankenstein, Pee Wee Big Adventure and John Lovitz’s liar character from SNL I concocted a great story. Matt would be the Villian, Erin the hero and I would be the creative force behind it all.
The story revolved around a great detective that had been called to a castle to solve the mystery of who was flushing people to their demise down the toilets in the aforementioned castle. In five pages, I had included a character that lied with every breath that would entice the great detective into the restroom at his castle to flush her down a toilet. Replete with several puns and jokes along the way, the story ended with a battle in which the detective foils our villain by flushing him instead.
It was more ambitious than it sounds. We laughed as we read through the script. We marveled at how much everyone would be shocked and blown away by the masterpiece I had written. I had scripted in musical cues, sound effects and a sequence of the someone literally being flushed down a toilet. The detective was to be wearing a deerstalker hat and smoke a pipe and the villain had a monocle and a mustache. We needed to figure out how to accomplish this grand production.
Something funny happened as we began to devise our method to achieve my vision. Matt and Erin would make puppy dog eyes at each other and I would do everything else. I did all the work. That was fine with me as long as they acted it out and brought in their costumes. I had recently purchased a cassette tape of Mel Brooks Greatest Hits. Its what inspired me to include scoring in the script.
I created two cassette tapes to be played at specific cues. I took the Violin Theme from Young Frankenstein to play in the background at the introduction and at the end to set the mood of the scary castle. I recorded scary music from the movie Devil Bat for the jump scares by holding my tape deck up to my TV speaker. I recorded the sound of the toilet flushing in my parents’ restroom. I set up the cassette so you would play a sound till silence then you hit pause and play when it was the time for the next sound. So all you had to do was take your dialog cue and hit play. When it was over you need to hit pause. So it was simple and easy and the next sound was ready when you hit play again. It took hours of recording and re-recording but I did it.
Next thing that needed figuring out was how to flush someone down a toilet in front of a classroom. On our next class working on the production, we discussed this and Matt and Erin offered little help but they did hold hands and giggle a lot. I came up with the idea of using the classes overhead projector. I would draw the villain and the toilet and when we played the flushing sound I would pull my overhead-projector-puppet down the opaque toilet. It could work. I just needed permission to used the projector and be given the transparent projector plastic to create this.
At this point with the deadline speeding closer, I felt the pressure to get everything done. Erin and Matt were little help. I made my way up to Mrs. Lehnhart’s desk. It was with a great deal of convincing and pleading she capitulated. She gave me the plastic sheets for the overhead projector and permission to use it for our play. She did this even though after reading my great script she expressed concern over its content. I spent the next 30 minutes drawing the opaque toilet and creating a puppet version of the villain whose arms moved up over his head as you pulled down on him. Matt and Erin pretended to go over the script.
Class began with some forgettable plays. Many direct plagiarisms of the Shakespeare that we had just read that was the impetus for our assignment. Anticipation grew in me as each play before ours offered little humor or anything new. I just knew that everyone would love my play. That my production held so much more than two people talking. It had a score, sound effects and a finale with special effects. It was funny too.
Erin, Matt and I huddled together. I instructed them and reminded them of their duties outside acting out my words. To my dismay, Erin, who was to play the detective, brought neither a deerstalker or a pipe. Matt also failed me as he wore no monocle or mustache. They didn’t even bother to make an effort to dress up in more period correct clothing. At least they knew the script and their cues.
It was our turn and set up began. I pulled down the projector screen, turned on the projector. I set up my cassettes in the two players behind the screen. I instructed Matt to hit play when I put up the title page on the projector. He did as I slid the title and it projected onto the screen backward. The violins played as the room laughed while I flipped the title over. “The Infamous John Flusher” in red dripping letters dominated the screen. The violins continued to play. “Starring Erin as The Detective” was the next slide. “And Matt as The John Flusher.” The first mistake, I spoiled the story in the credits.
I slid the castle on to the project and signal Erin to hit her mark. She did and clumsily stumbled through her lines. Before long, we were off and running. Matt and Erin worked their way through the play in front of a silent audience. That audience didn’t laugh like I envisioned. I hit all the sound cues as I followed the dialog. The crickets grew with my disappointment.
It was time for my coup de grace, the big finale. This would save everything. Matt took his place behind the screen with Erin hiding there with him. Their representations appeared on the overhead. Marker overhead projector Matt stood at the toilet as Erin delivered her line. Matt hit the play button and out came violin music. He had used the wrong cassette player. We stood in the silent room as I waited for the flush sound. It seemed an eternal pause before he played the flush. Then he screamed “Noooooooo!” as I pulled his likeness down into the toilet and off screen. Erin stepped out and declared the case of the infamous John flusher flushed. I slapped the “The End” sheet on the projector. My play was a failure and it stung.
I imagine that though I did most of the work, Erin and Matt shared my humiliation. I learned that audience decides what is good, not the artist. I learned that sometimes vision can exceed a person’s ability to reach it. The big learning for me was that I needed to work on my art so that my vision and ability stayed closer together than apart. I learned too that though our inspirations inform our art, they must become more than homage to be successful.