I’ve never met Don Zolidis in person, but through interaction on the Official Playwrights of Facebook, I knew he was a #PLONY I wanted to feature. Insanely prolific—he has published 85 YA plays alone—Zolidis has a keen sense of both marketing and the market, and the result is a mind-boggling successful career. Try this on for size: one of his plays has been produced 1,800 times! That’s a figure unheard of for any modern playwright, and highly improbable for a living playwright writing for adults (except maybe Neil Simon, and even he doesn’t get as many amateur productions as Zolidis). But Zolidis does that, too, and, while the field is admittedly more competitive, he nonetheless garners several productions a year and, this year, was a finalist for the prestigious Lark Playwrights Week. On top of all that, Zolidis is incredibly engaging and fun to talk to, and when he talks about his career? Well, let’s just say I said “that’s insane” a lot. I think you will, too.
What is a #PLONY? Find out here, and also read an explanation as to why I’m writing a series of #PLONY Profiles.
What is your geographical history?
I’m originally from Wisconsin, went to Carleton College in Minnesota, got my MFA in Playwriting in 2001 at the Actors Studio at the New School, and left two weeks before 9/11 to take a job teaching English at a boarding school in New Hampshire. But my fiancée—now wife—was still in New York, and she wanted to get out, so in 2004, she took a job in Texas, and I came along. I taught high school and middle school in Dallas/Fort Worth—I got certified as a high school teacher once I was there—and was able to parlay my success in writing for young people to teaching college at Ursinus in Philadelphia. I was commuting every week, which was insane, but, after three years, the high school plays were doing so well that I was able to retire from teaching. My wife took a job in Austin, and here I am.
Your undergrad degree is in English; what propelled you to pursue at MFA in Playwriting?
There was no theater major at Carleton, so everybody did everything. I acted in high school, and wrote terrible novels, so I really come at playwriting as an actor first. At Carleton we had a weekly event, Chelsea 11:17, where we’d be given three ingredients every Monday and have to write a play by Friday. Whoever managed to finish a script would hand out parts to actors and we’d perform them, script-in-hand, in front of an audience on Friday night. I started doing them as an actor, but finally wrote one, and it was funny and got a lot of reaction, and I thought, “I love this!” because I realized I could marry acting and writing.
I had 20 or 30 short plays read in front of an audience over the course of my college career and I got an education in what works and doesn’t work on stage, and an education in writing fast, which obviously helped me later on. The plays I wrote in college tended to be wild and crazy because you’re trying to get a reaction from a bunch of drunk college kids. Later, I found that style works best with 13-year-olds as well.
You got your MFA in New York; what made you leave?
Staying was never part of my plan. Many of my grad school cohorts did, and some of them have had pretty good success, but nothing was compelling me to stay. I’m sure there may have been opportunities if I’d worked harder, but they weren’t announcing themselves to me; it was a very nascent playwriting career. I was temping, but I didn’t just want a temp job to survive. I wanted to be doing something with my days that I thought was rewarding. I’d wanted to teach, so I looked for an opportunity where I could do that with the credentials I had, and I got hired at Tilton, a boarding school in New Hampshire, about two months after I graduated.
Do you think about what might have happened if you’d stayed?
I may have met with more professional success. I think that’s possible, but I would have a completely different career than what I’ve got and, obviously, I’m very happy with my career and wouldn’t trade it. And I never would have written that first play for my middle school students if I was in New York.
And now, does it even matter? It seems YA is a different trajectory entirely.
It’s an entirely different animal. Half my career is writing for young people, and half is “professional” theater, and I’m sort of wildly successful in one half and an emerging playwright in the other half; they are two entirely separate careers in a way. Writing for young people is definitely not New York-centered; in fact, the bulk of my productions are entirely outside of New York because the high schools in New York and most urban areas like Chicago and LA don’t have theater programs—or if they do, they’re not buying my plays. It’s fairly true that in large urban areas, the high schools are radically underfunded and theater education the students are getting is woefully inadequate.
So how did you end up writing that first YA play?
In New Hampshire, I’d been writing plays that were very heavy with swear words and drugs and murders, the kind of stuff you write when you’re 25, the things you’d imagine Sam Shepard writing in a grungy apartment somewhere, and I was certain if I ever showed any of it to my students, I’d be fired on the spot. When I came to Texas, they forced me to teach two classes of middle school theater as well as my high school classes, and I was a pretty bad theater teacher and one without lesson plans, so my idea was that we’d put up a show.
But I hated the plays I read that were aimed at middle school students. They were just stupid, they were condescending, and they were bad; I was underwhelmed. So I chose THE GOOD DOCTOR by Neil Simon, because I thought it would appeal to them, and they would get it, but as it turned out, it did not appeal to them and they did not get it—they hated it. And my good students were staging a walkout, because they hated the play. So I said, “Do you want me to just write a play for you?” They said yes, so I went home and wrote something in two days because if I didn’t have anything to do in class, they were going to burn down the place. I adapted THE GOOD DOCTOR into my own weird amalgamated thing, and they liked it, and we did it, and I didn’t get fired.
Neil Simon’s THE GOOD DOCTOR didn’t appeal to Zolidis’ students, so he adapted it so it would.
Since it was inspired by Simon and we did it just for fun, I never tried to publish it, but I decided to write our Christmas show and I took ideas from the kids, and they had some insane ideas that I just went home and wrote. I wrote GANGSTA CLAUS, and one with Santa’s elves going on strike and being replaced with Oompa Loompa strikebreakers. We did that show and, again, I didn’t get fired.
But how did you got from writing plays for your students to writing plays for the entire world?
I’d heard about a new publishing company called Playscripts that was doing stuff for high schools, so I sent my Christmas plays and eventually they said yes. By that time, I was writing more because I still had no lesson plans for my kids, and needed to write them shows. In fact, I had a class with 14 girls and two boys and needed a play for competition, and if you’ve ever looked for a 40-minute play for 14 girls and two boys, you’re not going to have many choices. I adapted HAMLET and wrote it taking place in a juvie home for girls, and once I wrote that, I felt like I could get away with anything. I had a girl as a singing tapeworm on stage, a play with a boy who is half lobster, just the craziest things I could imagine because we had no budget. And I feel like that spirit has helped me as a professional playwright as well, to free myself to experiment and try wild things.
But even once you left that school, you continued to write plays for middle and high school students?
The first year my plays were published, they got produced more than ten times; once you start getting checks, it’s a real impetus to write more. The third year, I had a light bulb moment—and this is when my career took off—an idea that I knew immediately was going to be a hit. I had just seen THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE ABRIDGED, and it was so fun and funny but only needs three actors and is a little inappropriate for a lot of schools. But I thought if I could capture that spirit and expand the cast it would be really successful. So I came up with a not-terribly-original idea to use the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm – basically have a group of actors try to perform all 209 fairy tales in two hours. It was such an obvious idea that I immediately started Googling it, but nobody had done it! This was a slam dunk! So I wrote a play called THE BROTHERS GRIMM SPECTACULATHON, which was the same framework as the COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE, but with a cast of up to 43. And sure enough, that play has been produced about 1,800 times in forty countries, and it was such an obvious idea.
THE BROTHERS GRIMM SPECTACULATHON has been a huge success.
Some of those Grimm stories are really dark; how did you adapt them for schools?
I made them larger than life. What I like is for every single role to be fun; whether it’s Spear Carrier #3 or Soldier #2, I want that kid to be excited to be at rehearsal because they get to do their thing. Every character has a strong personality and the smaller the part, the bigger the personality. That’s part of what makes my plays popular, and then I’m just trying to engage in a wild and funny way with the material, and some of the Grimm stories are so dark, they’re hilarious.
There’s one called “Lean Lisa,” where a woman is in bed with her husband and says, “You know, we’re so poor that instead of killing our cow, why won’t we milk the cow and sell the milk and buy another cow. Then we can have two cows and have more money,” and the husband says, “That sounds like a lot of work,” and she says, “You’re lazy,” and he strangles her. Moral: shut your mouth. So coming at this in a feminist way, critiquing the patriarchy and the way the stories are told and the lessons you’re taught—like the moral of “Hansel and Gretel” is never leave the house—and coming at it in a modern way makes it funny. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage mocking Disney as well.
Meanwhile, what’s going on in the “emerging” side of your playwriting career?
I’m struggling along. Well, not struggling, but, by comparison, I probably get one to two professional productions a year at a not quite regional theater. I’ve had shows at the Phoenix Theatre and Purple Rose and a few others.
We know what the turning point was for the YA career; was there a turning point on this side as well?
I won the Princess Grace Award in 2004, and that was the first show I ever got published, and my first national award, so it brought a lot of attention to that play, WHITE BUFFALO. It’s about a while buffalo calf that was born in my hometown in Wisconsin, and if you don’t know, the birth of a white calf is very important to the Sioux and many other Native American people, and signals a fulfillment of prophecy. But this calf was owned by white people so you had this interesting convergence of two cultures because like a million people came to see the calf, including the Dalai Lama. We had a reading of it at New Dramatists because you get a year residency with the Princess Grace, and that was a great opportunity, and I’ve been trying to get in every year since. Five years later [after a long but not atypical theater story], Purple Rose ended up producing WHITE BUFFALO.
World premiere of WHITE BUFFALO at Purple Rose
What’s your writing schedule like?
I don’t have to have a day job so I can spend all day writing or marketing or whatever I need to do. I probably spend slightly more than half my time on stuff for young people, and the rest on the adult stuff.
I try to write every day, usually in the morning, and I try to be a little social about it. I have an apprentice who is a BFA playwriting student and a former middle school student of mine, so we get together in the morning at a coffee shop, and she’ll write on one side and I’ll write on the other and then, after an hour or so, we’ll share, and go back and forth. Writing and sharing in a public way keeps me focused. I try to write in the afternoons as well, but not always. If I can write four hours a day, that’s a good day for me. I don’t write on weekends because I have small children.
You seem to have marketing down to a science, and were generous to share your tips in a guest blog post several months back.
I have a special genius for marketing my plays for young people; I was lucky enough to get a job as a high school theater teacher so I intimately know what they need and I know the problems they face, I know the restrictions they have. They’re starving for work and they need plays where they can put 20 or 30 people in them, and they’re sick of doing the same things over and over. If you can write something new that has a large cast, that’s fun, and smart, and well-crafted, it will get picked up, and produced, and embraced.
And how does the marketing go for the adult plays?
Since I have two sides of my career, for a long time, I didn’t submit professional plays as much, partly because, in a way, I got unused to rejection because everything I wrote for young people turned to gold and everything I wrote for adults didn’t. It was hard to keep getting emotionally hurt, and it’s such a crap shoot. I probably took about five years off because I had relationships with a couple of theaters, so I would send them work, and then my agent would send them out, and I’d get rejected that way. But recently, I steeled myself and started sending my plays out again. I was a finalist for the Lark this year with ERASURES, a play about a cheating scandal in an African-American school, and I just got one picked up by MadLab.
How did you get your agent?
When I had the production at Purple Rose, the artistic director asked if I had an agent, and when I said no, he said “You should,” and he contacted one he’d worked with and said, “We’re going to do this guy’s play; would you like to take him on?” And she said yes.
Are there separate agents for youth stuff and adult stuff?
My agent doesn’t deal with youth plays at all. Because for the most part, I deal directly with the publishers for those. The exception is that I recently wrote a play that, like GRIMM, I was sure was going to be a big hit, and I wanted to negotiate a better royalty for my contact, so I used my agent for that.
What’s the play?
It’s called GAME OF TIARAS, which is Game of Thrones with Disney princesses as main characters. I knew once I could explain it in one sentence, it was going to be big.
GAME OF TIARAS
And you were right?
I thought high school kids, especially girls, would get really excited by the concept. Who hasn’t wanted to see a swordfight between Cinderella and Snow White? So yeah it’s had a tremendous reaction. It’s been produced 100 times in the past year.
That, in a business where things usually move like molasses.
This is another huge difference between the two universes. What happens in high school and theater for young people happens at the speed of light. I can write a play, GAME OF TIARAS, and send a mass email to theater teachers who have done my work previously—in July, and by August have 60 productions lined up for November and December. The turnaround is very, very quick. I had one play I wrote in February last year, and I sent out my email and I had fifty offers in one day; the first came back in 13 minutes.
I have to ask… given your insane success with YA, why continue to doggedly pursue the adult plays?
Because that’s my dream! I hope that my plays for high school students are just as high quality as my plays for adults; it’s writing in different form and style but same amount of craft. I still dream of New York and a production at a regional theater. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky with the high school stuff, so I have achieved my dream in a totally different way than I anticipated, but it’s also given me a foundation to keep going after the original one.
World premiere of MILES AND ELLIE at Purple Rose
How many plays do you have?
As far as published plays, I have four professional published full-lengths, and then, depending on how you count them, something like 85 published plays for young people. That’s not to say those plays never get produced by adults; they often do. I get between 30 and 50 community theater productions a year, and the occasional professional production; there is some crossover.
I probably have 20 to 25 full-length plays for adults that are not published. Some have been produced, but have a good 15 unproduced, unpublished plays.
How many productions do you average a year?
This year, I’ll get about 1,800, but recently the average has been about 1,500. So far, every year I’ve gotten more productions than the last. At some point I’m sure I’ll hit some kind of ceiling.
With that many, what does it take to make one stand out?
Location. Where they’re getting produced. For example, today I’m attending a performance at Columbine High School, and there’s a show opening at Ferguson High School at the same time.
Is there overlap in your ability to get them produced?
They’re almost wholly separate, but I don’t know, I’m hoping that one of these days, one of these high school kids will grow up to be an AD and will say, “You know whose play I should do?” I’ve gotten strange film opportunities based on high school plays, movie producers whose kids have been in my plays have contacted me, but no movies have been made.
I get plays done all over the world, in crazy places, in Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Central Africa. One of my favorite things is… I had a show in Singapore, and there was a blog online where someone had gone to review the show. The photos are almost always of the performers, but he took a snapshot of the audience and they’re all just laughing their heads off. My play is speaking to people in different corners of the world. That this is universal is so exciting to me.
Zolidis’ play has Singapore kids in stitches.
Do you have any final words of wisdom?
I think part of the reason I’ve had so much success in the youth market is that there are not many playwrights writing for it; the competition is less, and I think professional playwrights would be smart to take a stab at one or two to see if they can find a receptive audience. For the most part, professional playwrights kind of have a blind spot to the rest of the theater world that’s out there, and with high school and community, you’re talking about possibly 25,000 theaters that you’re just not looking at and that you can make a nice living. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s easier.
Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.
To read more entries in this series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.