Tuesday, September 21, 2021

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Center Stage

Silly, female-centric, a success


Ten minutes into a read-through of “Choices,” the latest from Des Moines playwright Karen Schaeffer, I found myself surprised by my own laughter. The way my chuckles kept erupting, I wondered when grownups got so silly?

The answer lies with the woman who wrote the script. Schaeffer generated similar hilarity over the winter with her first play, “Girls’ Weekend,” in which inappropriate sets of lovers were put through a game of Whack-a-Mole. Silliness ran rampant, but a winning farce always takes a lot of forethought.stage

Schaeffer’s debut, like “Choices,” reached its final shape after a series of trials. First came the “table reads,” not unlike the sit-down rehearsal I watched, and then both plays enjoyed a staged reading. Along the way, Schaeffer and others — in particular Playhouse dramaturge Kathy Pingel — identified any sore thumbs poking up. Even when an audience comes expecting to laugh, some developments won’t stand scrutiny.

As soon as Schaeffer and her husband Max — well known in local radio and theater — joined me over coffee, she came up with an example.

“I was working on the ‘Weekend,’ and I had somebody locked in a closet for the longest time,” she reveals. “ I must’ve had them in there, without a peep of complaint, for half an hour.”

Prep Iowa

Pingel wouldn’t let her get away with that.

“The network I’ve got in theater…I’m blessed, really,” she said. “Max and I both can count on so many champions.”

Theater depends on collaboration; it takes a village. Nonetheless, it was Schaeffer herself who did the heavy lifting when it came to both “Weekend” and the new script. On her own, she dreamed up the characters and situation. These came out of what she perceived as a glaring absence.

“I was 49 years old, and I wasn’t seeing anything good written for women like myself,” she said.

Schaeffer had always read a lot of plays, and she’d met Max doing theater down in Texas. Soon two sons came along, as did a move to Des Moines, but both parents kept at the stage work. After the kids were grown, Schaeffer went on reading through stacks of scripts, and she came to feel she had to “do something” about the lack of decent roles for women.

“I just wanted to make people laugh, but also keep it female-centric,” she said.

The result, “Girls’ Weekend,” was her 50th birthday gift to herself.

“It took two weeks to write and then two years to bring to the stage,” she said.

The process involved more than “table reads” and tweaking. There was also another play entirely, a one-act. It appears, though, that the result is going from success to success. A theater in Lawrence, Kansas, has already picked up “Weekend” for next season. That’s an early purchase, too; most theaters wait till July or August to hammer out their program for the following fall and winter.

As for “Choices,” we’ll have to see where it will go from here. I can say, though, that the ride’s already got me laughing. CV


John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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