Jim Croce is your uncle?

Four writers take on Blue Room’s Fresh Ink challenge

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

Blue Room Theatre

139 W. First St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 895-3749

[It is nearly midnight; a brassy train whistle blares as it approaches the station. Enter: two police officers leading a handcuffed Silas Mortben onto the wooden platform. Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” plays faintly in the background. The intermittent beeping of a dying cell phone can be heard nearby. Locks of dark greasy hair hang over Silas’ pale forehead, hiding his eyes as he stares at the ground. The three stop and wait.]

Officer 1: (looks at Silas with disgust) Man, this train better move like the Shinkansen.

Officer 2: (tapping his toes, singing) “Bad, bad Leroy Brown the baddest man in the whole damn town, badder than old King Kong and meaner than a junkyard dog …” (hums)… “He got a 32 gun in his pocket for fun, he got a razor in his shoe.”

Silas: (smiling at officer 1) I have avuncular feelings for you, sir.

Officer 1: (gripping Silas’s arm but taking a step back) See what I mean? He freaks me out! What in the heck does that mean anyway?

Officer 2: It means he’s fond of you like an uncle. (shrugs) I wouldn’t be too worried about it.

Writing a play that includes a train in the distance, a weak cell phone battery, the word “avuncular,” 15 seconds of a Jim Croce song and a character in handcuffs is tough. I know, because the short scene above is my attempt.

This was the challenge given to four playwrights by the Blue Room Theatre, and the challenging setup is part of what has made the annual Fresh Ink Festival a strong finish to the theater’s performance season for the past six years.

The four writers get a week to write a 20-minute play that incorporates these elements, which are decided on by the theater. They each are given the same conditions, set and photographs of members of their casts. The demographics of the four casts are very similar as well.

After crafting their scripts, the writers hand them over to a director.

Despite the common requirements, the plays are always very different, Blue Room artistic director Joe Hilsee said.

“Having parameters sparks the creative process,” he said.

This year’s Fresh Ink writers are Susan Aylworth, Ken Chandler, Anna Moore and Wayne Pease.

Aylworth is not new to writing. She has published seven novels as part of her Rainbow Rock Romance Series, as well as poems and plays. She also teaches English at Chico State.

“In a way it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” Aylworth said. “They give you some of the pieces, but you have to fill in the rest.”

Aylworth and Pease worked together at the Blue Room in May 2003 to produce Gertrude. The one-woman play, written by Aylworth and directed by Pease, explored the life of Hamlet’s mother.

Going into Fresh Ink with so much directing experience, it was difficult to give the script over to a director and let go, Pease said.

“You give it over to somebody else and you just get to watch,” he said. “You may be surprised by it, you may hate it or you may really like it.”

For Moore, who had never previously written a play, Fresh Ink was a great learning experience. The conditions of the competition helped her get started.

“Because I’ve never written a play before, I was kind of glad to have the restrictions,” Moore said.

Betty Burns, a Blue Room Company member, has participated in Fresh Ink the past six years as an actor, writer and director and will be directing Chandler’s play. She said the biggest challenge with Fresh Ink is the time constraint.

“You have to come up with a solid idea right off the bat,” Burns said. “There’s not much time to backtrack or change things.”

This year the festival received a $15,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation and a donation of a $1,000 prize from Mid Valley Title and Escrow. The prize money will go the favorite of the four plays as voted by Fresh Ink audiences.

In the past, the Blue Room invited local writers to take part in the festival. This year, because the grant allowed writers, actors and directors to be paid, Hilsee decided the selection process should be more competitive.

The theater put out a call for interested writers. Twenty-three submitted writing samples, and a selection committee chose the top four without knowing which authors wrote each of the submissions.