Indeed, students at schools where Kelly holds readings of new plays often seem more mature than the playwright himself. "Their language presents a bit of a problem," Kelly admits. "I won't write profanity into a play. Perhaps that's unrealistic, but I find it repulsive. On the other hand, you can't write down to young people in any sense. No cute bunnies on the stump saying, `It's a lovely day!' What I try to write," he decides, "is gentle escapism."
But creating escapism is not always easy. While writing an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland for Pioneer, Kelly discovered that "nobody in Alice is pleasant. They're all eccentrics or insane. Not one person is normal in any sense." That some of Lewis Carroll's characters are witty was of no help. "You must remember who you're writing for, and what they're listening to in everyday life," Kelly says. "Independence Day is not exactly Noel Coward." Kelly solved his problem by having the White Rabbit ask Alice if she would be his friend. Normalcy established, Kelly went on to his next play.
"I compare my plays to daughters," he says. "I do the best I can, and then they go out and get married. One might marry Prince Charming, another might marry the guy who pumps gas, and another might end up on the street. I do what I can with them, but when I'm done, I move on."
AGNES RASPUTIN (a tough student at Last Chance High): Well, well, well. What have we here? Ha, ha, ha. Hey, Anzac! Come look! Ha, ha, ha.
ANZAC CALGARY (Agnes's male counterpart, a lethal punk): So, I'm looking.
AGNES: Anzac, you know what I think we've got here?
AGNES: Yeah, tourists. From the Valley... Three Valley Girls and a friend.
ANZAC: He's a nerd. I can tell. Nerds I step on. Nerds I squash. Ha, ha.
DOUGLAS (shoves ANZAC on the shoulder): Watch it, Gopher Breath.
ANZAC: Why, you--!
--from Help! I'm Trapped in a High School!, by Tim Kelly
"Hey! Guess what I just got in the mail," Steve Fendrich says. "The Nifty Fifties!"
The Pioneer office that the mail comes to is no longer a hole-in-the-wall on Colorado Boulevard but a much fancier warehouse building in Englewood. Ten employees handle the printing, bulk-mailing and editing that used to be family chores. Steve has been so busy running the business that he hasn't had time to write a lyric in more than five years. Nevertheless, Fendrich dramatists, along with Kelly, are still the top-sellers at Pioneer. Last year the late Shubert's own Give My Regards to Broadway was number one on the musicals list, with Ducktails and Bobbysox a close second. Now, with the delivery of Kelly's The Nifty Fifties, high schools that have already done Ducktails and Bobbysox to death will have something new to sink their teeth into.
Kelly--who lived through the Fifties and found them "kind of boring"--has nevertheless pulled through with a dependable drama that takes place in Louise's Luncheonette and revolves around the tension over whether the heroine will find a place to hold the annual Hippety Hop dance and whether the famous rock star will perform after all for a small-town crowd that includes the usual cast of characters, right down to the Assistant Principal.
"I request formula drama all the time," Steve says. "Tim's Bang, Bang You're Dead, for instance. That was because I had a gut feeling we needed to do a play about guns. Not gun control, because that would make the NRA mad. But not pro-gun, either. When I needed a drug play, Tim wrote The Empty Chair, which takes place at a substance-abuse support group."
Lately, Steve's had an inkling that the time is right for an AIDS play--"although, unfortunately, it can't be about two gay men with AIDS," he says. "It's sad, the commercial aspect of this business."
Pioneer's newly inaugurated Social Awareness subsection will deal with all this and more: Non-Kelly plays in the most recent catalogue mention eating disorders, steroid abuse, alcoholism and drunk driving--all on one page.
But there's still room for traditional, affordable, easy kids' stuff. For Krazy Kamp, a can't-miss summer-camp production. Santa Sees a Shrink, filled with Christmas hilarity. Hauncho the Hamster and Emmy Lou and the Big Ragout, surefire hits with the preschool crowd. It's all available at Pioneer, and one Fendrich or another will always be at the other end of the line to talk it over.
"See, there's nothing wrong with Carousel or My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music," Steve says. "But there's nothing wrong with these other plays, either. There's more parts. Parents will come. Everyone's happy.
Measure for measure: Bill Francoeur keeps composed.
"Independence Day is not exactly Noel Coward."