A glimpse into ‘A Post on the Prairie’

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From Craig: This is a big deal. A piece by a Billings playwright, Ryan Gage, is being staged at the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts as part of its main program. Gage, a government teacher at Billings Senior High School, has tapped into his love of post-apocalyptic art to bring about this two-character play set on the Montana prairie. I can’t wait to see it (Oct. 4 matinee, baby!). Gage was kind enough to offer a behind-the-scenes look at how the play, and his nascent writing career, came about. Read on:

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I started writing plays around 2007. However, theatre was not something new to me. I spent many hours in the audience watching my sister and other friends grow as people and as actors on the stages around Billings.

I was mostly an athlete growing up, following the footsteps of my father. He was an Olympic hammer thrower, having made the team in 1968 and 1972. His father died right before the 1968 Games in Mexico City so he withdrew from the competition, but he did make the team in 1972, finishing first out of the Americans in Munich a week after the Games were almost canceled due to the PLO-Israeli wrestlers hostage crisis. For me, it was always soccer. Regardless, my dad’s competitive athletic spirit was passed on to me and I spent a lot of my youth and earlier adult years playing and coaching soccer.

Ryan Gage with son Monte.

Ryan Gage with son Monte.

I found myself unexpectedly drawn to the theatre in 2007. I was working at Hastings and one of my co-workers, and later good friend, was a local actor and playwright. His name is Dan Paul Schafer and he invited me to participate and become a part of the wonderful world of live theatre. He had been writing in the One-Act Festival at Venture Theatre for several years and he told me I should come check out his show that year. It was a moving piece about 9/11 and more importantly a woman’s struggle with her place in life. Although I knew watching his piece that I wanted to write too, it was another piece that really inspired me to actually do so.

There was a piece that was historical fiction and, being the history teacher I am, I was really disappointed in it. I liked what the writer had tried to accomplish with it but both the style of the piece and the representation of history in it left me yearning for something more from it. It wasn’t bad. I just felt like I could do better. Part of that competitive spirit so engrained in me, I suppose.

The next day at work, Dan Paul and I were talking and I mentioned the “feeling like I could do better”, even though I knew nothing about writing plays myself, and he basically said, “Why don’t you?” And my experience in writing plays began. Sort of…

Dan Paul knew I had no clue what I would be doing and offered to assist me in my first script. We teamed up on a script called “La Mano del Diablo” for the next year’s One-Act Festival and he showed me the ropes. How to create story arcs, how to develop complex characters in those arcs, how to control and use stage direction, how to create subtext behind what was actually being said on the stage. You name it. It was largely a learning process for me even though I had come to him with the basic premise for the show.

Without that experience, I wouldn’t be writing this today. The past eight years have been a wonderful adventure of writing one-acts, participating in 24 hour play festivals, developing original pieces at the school I work at, getting on stage myself, and even dabbling in some directing here and there.

But my first draw has been the crafting of stories for the stage. And it remains my number one interest today.

On Oct. 2, my newest play will debut at NOVA Center for the Performing Arts. It is titled “A Post on the Prairie” and it is the most challenging, complex, and rewarding piece I have ever written. I’d like to tell you a little about its history and development.

First and foremost, this play has gone through numerous live readings and critiques from other established playwrights. The first live reading was of the first scene only. The biggest question I had for the audience that night was, “Do you want to see more?” The answer was a resounding  “YES!”  followed by a wonderful talkback session of likes, dislikes, what worked, what didn’t, and so on. The next reading, a year later, was of the full play in its first completed draft. Again, the response was immensely positive followed by another great round of discussing art, theatre, Montana, and everything in between. Another year of revising and retooling the script along with some critique by trusted friends and artists and here we are!

Let me tell you how this particular idea and play all began.

To a small degree, I suppose the idea was born shortly after my dad died. He dad died very suddenly from a heart attack in 2010. It’s not a story about him, or myself for that matter, but there are some things about him, me, and my relationship with my father that influenced my thought process and, more importantly, my desire to see this thing to through to the end.

Above all, it started with an idea that appealed to me the most and that I used as my inspiration. That idea? One final beer around a campfire with my dad.

To another degree, the idea is revisiting a setting in the first script I ever worked on. Stories and interactions around a campfire on a dark night in a prairie landscape. Many ideas start but never going anywhere in writing plays. I have several stories uncompleted. Some may be revisited, others will not.

That’s it. An idea. A simple idea.

I think that’s how any script or story takes root. A little itch needing to be scratched. Something seemingly insignificant stuck on the brain that begs to be explored.

Over time, that itch grew into something bigger and inspired me to come up with the most compelling and engaging story idea I could think of to write.

A post-apocalyptic tale. Set in Montana. Around a campfire. And yes, there is beer.

It was very important for me as writer and an individual to not make this about me in the end. A good writer friend of mine, Craig Kenworthy, once gave me some of the best advice when I was struggling in those early years of writing. I was struggling with the development of a play I had written or perhaps with coming up with a new idea. I honestly don’t remember the exact problem. What I do remember is what he wrote to me. He said, “Distance yourself from your plays. Branch out into material that isn’t about personal experience.”

It’s some of the best and simplest advice a writer, especially a playwright, can follow. It is hard to create new stories or write a play if it’s something too directly experienced by the writer in their own life. As much as my first two one-acts, “In Dog Years” and “For One Day”, made me feel great as a writer, they also left me wanting for something not nearly as emotionally invested. Overall, they were well received even though people cursed me for making them cry. They were largely based on my own experiences and were the easiest stories to tell as a new playwright. However, I also wrote myself into a box. Plus, being so emotionally invested to a script can be brutal to your soul.  And that was when I struggled and Craig gave me that great advice.

The next year’s One-Act Festival, I surprised everyone with a farce that was nothing but comical and had absolutely no connection to my own life experiences. It was the best exercise in writing I had partaken in to that date. It also gave me the confidence that I could write about anything and in any style I chose as long as I wanted it bad enough and worked hard enough.

“A Post on the Prairie” challenged me because while the idea began around a very personal desire of mine, I knew for the script’s success that I had to move further and further away from that idea and into something unrelated in order to really create a quality full-length play.

Eventually, the idea became about a post-apocalyptic encounter between two strangers surviving in that landscape who meet around a campfire on the Montana prairie. One individual, a cowboy, has been there for three years. The other, a man, wanders into his camp one night.

Post-apocalyptic stories have intrigued me for years. I think what I love about them the most is that they seem to force us to examine ourselves, the world around us, and how we interact with one another by pitting us against a seemingly impossible what-if scenario. Aside from Stephen King’s “The Stand”, most post-apocalyptic never really even addresses the “what happened” component, but rather focuses on the “what now” factor. From Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” to “The Walking Dead”, the most important question to be answered is how do we survive, how do we interact, and how do we become human again? That’s the part I love and the part I chose to focus on when writing “A Post on the Prairie”. If you’re expecting zombies, deadly viruses or comets, you’ll be disappointed.

The hardest part of writing this script was the concept of a two-man play. I had never written a show for a cast of two and it offers huge challenges I had never faced to that point. Unlike in larger cast pieces, a two-man show rarely sees either character leave the stage through its duration. If they do, it’s generally not for long. The problem then becomes how to write a compelling story and engaging dialogue between two people that keeps the audience’s focus and desire for more for up to two hours. Fortunately, I’ve had a few great examples to lean on for inspiration.

The first was “The Sunset Limited” written by Cormac McCarthy. This script was loaded with drama, action, comedy, and suspense that made you forget it was two men in an apartment the entire time. Having read the script and seeing the HBO adaptation, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, my interest and desire was definitely geared and excited towards trying to write one someday. However, later I witnessed two amazing two-man shows back-to-back right here in Billings that immediately sent me to my notebook and computer to get to work.

One was titled “A Steady Rain”, a story about two cops, and the other was “Red”,  a story about an artist and his apprentice. Between the compelling stories, the dialogue that drew you in, and the intimacy of such a small show in a single setting, I knew that was the challenge I wanted to take on with “A Post on the Prairie”. I could’ve easily expanded the cast, and I even fought back the temptation at times, but I knew in the end that this story had to be about these two men and their time together and effect on each other.

The other challenge was how to make a truly authentic post-apocalyptic tale. One that hasn’t been done before. Maybe I’ve succeeded there. Maybe I haven’t. It’s hard to create a truly unique idea. One could even argue it is impossible. And there are a lot of influences on me that are present in this play. However, I think there will be a lot of things in this show that will surprise you and remind us that the post-apocalyptic landscape doesn’t necessarily have to be that far from our own current one as we know it. Remember, in the end the genre is largely an examination of who we are in the here and now anyway. The question and the challenge is how to make those elements fit. Without out telling you too much more, I’ll just invite you to come and see for yourself and enjoy the show!

None of this would be possible without the support of some key people. First and foremost, my wife Liz. Without her love and support I may have wanted to quit along the way and go back to my comfort zone as a writer. She always pushes me to keep going and test myself. To feed that competitive side of me that is rooted so deep. Next, Patrick Wilson and Shad Scott for creating Sacrifice Cliff Theatre Co. and providing artists a place to play and develop new ideas. Without that venue and forum to workshop “A Post on the Prairie” it wouldn’t be the script it is today. Furthermore, NOVA Center for the Performing Arts for taking a chance on my script and putting it on their season and supporting us along the way as we get it on its feet. And finally, Dan Paul Schafer and Craig Kenworthy for helping me with scripts through reading and providing feedback and showing me how to become my own worst critic and evaluator.

The list goes on and on. I could write about every single person I’ve encountered on my journey as a writer in the theater, as each person and experience has helped me develop into what I am today as a writer. If we’ve crossed paths, you can bet you’ve left a footprint on me as an artist and a writer.

See you at the show!

If you’re in the Billings area and would like to see “A Post on the Prairie,” you can buy tickets here.

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