An old living room card table shaking uncontrollably during a candlelit séance … an unidentified ghost — or two — lurking in the dark basement, where kids are at play … and an 8-year-old child who has been missing for nearly 40 years. These are just a few of the chilling elements included in two new nail-biting plays hitting the Queen City on the same week — in the same house … well, kind of.
The city will be home to an unprecedented two world premiere productions by the same playwright to ring in the spring with an unseasonably spooky vibe.
Upstairs with the adults at the séance, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of The Great Beyond premieres on Wednesday, March 20, on the Queens University campus. On the following Friday at ImaginOn, The Ghost of Splinter Cove takes us downstairs to the basement with three imperiled kids for a world premiere Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.
Both spooktaculars are by renowned playwright Steven Dietz, who splits most of his time up in Seattle and down in Austin, where he teaches his craft at the University of Texas. Dietz has written and adapted more than 40 plays, and a slew of them have been performed in various theaters across town, including God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Yankee Tavern and 2010 Show of the Year winner Becky’s New Car.
But Dietz’s two newbies would never have been written if he hadn’t gotten on a plane and met with Adam Burke and Chip Decker here in Charlotte.
Burke, the artistic director at Children’s Theatre, and Decker, his counterpart at Actor’s Theatre, had cooked up a concept during a late 2014 meetup. Cooperation between the two companies was feasible, but what kind of project would bring audiences together to see the kinship between Decker’s adult theater and Burke’s theater for young audiences (known as TYA)?
Decker and Burke both have considerable experience in bringing new plays to their respective theaters, so it was obvious that their joint project would be a new script. But what if they commissioned two scripts, each one designed to funnel audience from their theater to the other theater while both shows were in production?
Somehow the two plays and their stories would have to interlock. Yet to encourage rather than force audiences at one company’s theater to also see the other company’s play, both of the plays would have to stand independently on their own. Through this line of thinking — excited brainstorming sessions interspersed with copious cups of coffee — the concept that would be named The Second Story Project took shape.
When Burke and Decker decided to move forward, there were no funds earmarked for the project, no playwright(s) commissioned to create the scripts and no parameters detailing how the two stories would interconnect. There was just one dynamite concept that had never been tried before.
“It’s always a leap of faith to do anything, especially something new,” Decker observes. “We just both hit on it, felt it was a good solid idea, and when you feel that way, you have to jump in with both feet and hope there’s a safety net at the bottom.”
Looking back on it, Dietz was an obvious choice. Decker and Burke had been discussing advertising in trade publications or soliciting proposals — until the successful run of Dietz’s Jackie and Me adaptation at ImaginOn turned on the lightbulb in Decker’s skull.
He sums up his realization: “We’re looking for a playwright who has a great voice for theater for younger audiences and a playwright who has an experienced track record with adult audiences, we’ve both produced Steven Dietz plays, why should we look any further — especially the first time out?”
Burke had begun to block out the idea of looking to an established adult playwright, calculating that the TYA piece would be the higher hurdle.
“I am more confident that someone who can write a great play for young people can write a great play for adults than I am of the reverse,” Burke explains. “So when Chip suggested Steven, I’m like, ‘Ah, yes, of course!’ There are only a handful of people that are moving between the two worlds successfully.”
When presented with the idea, Dietz was a little wary, wanting to make sure there wasn’t some special issue or theme that his scripts were expected to address. Getting reassurances of his complete freedom, he warmed to the prospect of such an unprecedented challenge.
“What was so beautiful about the idea was that it was so simple,” Dietz recalls. “The core of the pitch to me was something shared. A shared story, a shared theme — something shared. And in one theater piece, we see it through young people’s eyes, and in the other, we see it through grownups’ eyes. That’s just like Post-it Note simple!”
The playwright was also on Burke’s wavelength with respect to the primacy of the TYA piece. It would be the more difficult piece to write and take more time, so it needed to be written first. Unlike other commissions that Dietz has fulfilled, neither The Ghost of Splinter Cove nor The Great Beyond turned out to be a play he would have written anyway. No barely-started scripts or scribbled scenarios were on his studio shelves waiting for these unique commissions.
Dietz suspected that he would make many false starts on his youth play — and he did. The upstairs/downstairs idea didn’t occur to him immediately, but when it did, it seemed like an elegantly simple way to make his plays interlock.
But what kind of full-length play can be staged in a basement?
“I had this little tiny notion,” Dietz reveals. “I had a friend who had his kids try out his camping equipment in their basement once. And of course, that is what’s beautiful about writing for young people: where they go on that camping trip in their imagination is much more dynamic than getting out even on the San Juan Islands … Because it’s in their imaginations, so it can be anywhere.”
Especially when your brand-new camping gear is a birthday gift, you’re in a strange haunted house for the first time in your life, and there’s a smartphone app that makes your whole camping adventure come alive.
So that’s the downstairs core of the Second Story Project. From time to time, Dad calls down from upstairs, sending down snacks and making sure the kids are settled in. The two plays interconnect with those conversations — we only see Dad in The Great Beyond — and there are key props that will be common to both of Dietz’s eerie dramas.
Upstairs, where the séance happens, the parents are having a dinner reunion after a great family loss and we learn why the kids have never visited this house before.
For Dietz, there was a unique benefit in crafting his two new plays as a matched set.
“Writing [Splinter Cove] taught me about those kids’ parents,” Dietz remarks. “In any other play I’ve ever written, they would just be offstage characters. This process doesn’t have offstage characters, really. They have characters onstage at the other theater.”
Characters that may or may not be alive. Bwa-ha-ha!