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‘Goosebumps the Musical’

Off the Cuff with First Stage’s John Maclay

Oct. 4, 2016
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First Stage Associate Artistic Director and Director of the Young Company John Maclay (who started his theater career at a young age himself) has directed, taught and acted along with young actors for classes and more than 25 productions at First Stage since 2000. Taking after his mother, who was involved in adapting literature for the stage as a University of Illinois professor, Maclay has also adapted children’s stories into First Stage productions. Now, after Nancy Drew and the Biggest Case Ever, Geronimo Stilton: Mouse in Space and Just a Little Critter Musical, he’s tackling R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps with Goosebumps the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium. John Maclay invited Off the Cuff to First Stage’s headquarters at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center to talk about the show and the process of writing for children’s theater.

Is writing for children’s theater different from writing for any other kind of theater?

I don’t necessarily think of it as writing for children. I think of writing it for families. So when I sit down to write something, I want my children to like it but I also want “me” to like it. I want a play that I also enjoy. I don’t want to write a play where the parents are rolling their eyes and miserable. Right? I want a play that is enjoyed by the whole family. The difference between writing for young people or writing for families and writing for the “adult” theater, whatever that means, is simply that I’m often adapting books that are geared toward a younger audience, and so the initial content is different. But as far as the level of professional theater, whether that’s in the production values or in the direction or in the crafting of the script, I feel like the same rigorous standards should apply. We always operate with the initial idea that we’re never going to talk down to young people, and we’re going to assume that young people are incredibly bright and curious and capable.

What was it about Goosebumps that made you want to adapt it for theater?

There’s a reason R.L. Stine is so popular. I mean, you’re talking about hundreds of millions of copies of those books. For me with Goosebumps, it always starts for us with story. We often get asked about what morals do we want to do or what themes, and we don’t actually talk about that a whole lot here. We talk about what’s a good story to tell. And if you tell a good story with truthful characters, then themes and morals and ideas just present themselves. But it always starts with a good story, and I think Goosebumps is that way, too … I am not someone who historically has really enjoyed horror films or those kinds of things. But I think the book that we went to [Phantom of the Auditorium] … it’s more “Scooby Doo” than Friday the 13th … I think “Scooby Doo” is a great analogy because it’s got this tense, scary thing that’s happening, but it’s also somewhat ridiculous and silly and vibrant and funny.

What advice would you give to people interested in a career in playwriting for children or otherwise?

For a long time, I did not think of myself as a writer at all. I thought myself incapable of writing something good. But at some point … I decided that I was pretty good at editing, at taking a script that was flawed, that was not very strong, and editing it into something pretty solid. And so I realized what I really needed to do was write a bad script and then fix it, which is of course what all writing is. It’s about editing and rewriting and going back and fixing and rewriting. So once I realized that I actually did have a bunch of the blue-collar skills of just rewriting and revision and improving and getting feedback and all that, then suddenly I felt really emboldened to write a lot.

Goosebumps the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium will be performed Oct. 14-Nov. 13 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater. Call 414-273-7206 or visit firststage.org for tickets.

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