Each year eager theater fans in Fort Wayne wait to hear what plays and musicals they can expect to enjoy in the coming season. Many of the titles are likely to be familiar to even casual fans much less the seasoned theater veteran. But those seeing titles on the First Presbyterian Theater schedule may have come up short at one name. Um, what exactly is My Dead Clown?
The short answer is the brainchild of David Rousculp, the funeral director who wrote My Dead Clown. The longer answer is, well, longer. But first it’s important to know how Rousculp came to invent the clown in the first place. Born in Lima, Ohio, Rousculp grew up in Tipp City, a small town just outside of Dayton. When the Tipp City Players, a community theater group, first began, Rousculp’s entire family got into the act.
“I was about 13 and auditioned for the first play they did,” says Rousculp. “The whole family did. My brothers, my sisters, my mom – we were all in that first summer show. I was doing about three shows a year from then on.”
He put those efforts aside for a time until he was a father and had a young daughter who wanted to be cast in a production of Annie. He decided to audition, then ask if his daughter could get a part in the cast as well. The gambit worked, and suddenly Rousculp was back on the stage and getting encouragement to take some acting classes.
“I was in Cleveland at the time, and there was an active film community there. There was a guy who gave acting classes in an apartment above his karate shop. It was in a bad section of town. In fact, it was just a few blocks from that house where the kidnapped girls were kept all those years. But this guy who lived above the karate shop was a stunt guy and taught people how to fight on screen. He was also giving these acting classes and told us to write short scripts that could be done in one room, like his situation living above the shop. As a funeral director, I have lived in apartments over funeral homes three or four times, so I knew immediately that I wanted my script to be set in an apartment over a funeral home.”
The first piece of the puzzle was in place, but Rousculp wasn’t entirely sure where to take it from there. Until fate intervened, and a particularly high-strung gentleman sat down next to Rousculp one day and began talking a mile a minute. Rousculp finally asked him what he did for a living, and the response provided the next piece.
“He said, ‘I’m a professional clown,’ and I thought what is the last person you’d want with you in a funeral home? A clown. But why would he be in a funeral home? I know, he’s dead.”
That much explains the title My Dead Clown, but there’s still far more to the story of how that scene, assigned by a karate guy who also taught acting, becomes a full-fledged stage production which visits First Presbyterian Theater beginning July 12.
“I knew My Dead Clown was a great attention grabber, so I started working on a script based on that. I had already bought the software Final Draft and learned how to use that, and wrote a script in 2005 which I submitted to a competition. It got second place, so I kept working on the film script and by 2008 I had enough interest in filming it that I thought it was going to happen. But then the economy tanked, and that didn’t happen. At that point, I had had enough of that clown and put it on a shelf. I thought I was done with it.”
But four years ago, Rousculp moved from Cleveland to Fort Wayne to accept the job as funeral director at Harper’s in New Haven. In 2016 his wife mentioned that the Civic Theater was holding a playwriting contest and suggested he enter. Unsure what to write, she pointed out “You actually already have something. Use My Dead Clown. And use the funny one!”
By this time Rousculp had a variety of versions of My Dead Clown, ranging from dark to comedic, and decided to take a look again. But he was unsure of how to proceed.
“I had written it about a dozen different ways, but it had always been a film script. I wasn’t sure how to change it into a play which is a completely different ballgame. And it was short notice, but I got it together and won second place again.”
His finish led to a stage reading with actors, something which rekindled his love for My Dead Clown and ultimately led to the casting of the lead role.
“The play was really well-received, and people thought it was really funny. I had thought I was done with it, but seeing what these actors did with the roles and hearing what they brought to the characters got me all wound up about it and anxious to do more with it.”
Elise Ramel from the Civic and Thom Hofrichter from First Presbyterian both encouraged him to look for backing so that a play could be staged locally, a task which proved easier than it sounded. One more piece of the puzzle remained though.
“It’s not a musical, but I had a place in the script that said ‘Insert song here,’ and then I realized ‘I guess I’m going to have to write a song now.’ But I had never done that before. I started coming up with lines and melodies and took my phone into the shower with me to record things as I came up with them.”
Remarkably, a big show-stopper emerged from his efforts, one recorded at Sweetwater by local legend Kat Bowser and a horn section brought in from Nashville. Now ready for the First Pres stage, My Dead Clown will finally be in front of an audience which will hopefully allow for one more transition.
“Having turned it into a play from a film script, now I have to do the opposite. I have Hollywood producers interested in filming it, and I think it’ll be shot in Fort Wayne, which will give the city a nice profile.”
Rousculp has not only seen a character he developed more than a decade ago come to life on the stage, featuring Reuben Albaugh in the title role he first tackled in that reading last year, but he’s happy with his new home in Fort Wayne.
“I was surprised when I moved here, but Fort Wayne is a great town. The sports are great, the arts are great and there are a lot of good restaurants. There’s plenty to do. And I’m amazed at these people in community theater. The talent just blows my mind. The fact that they’re giving up their time – their summer – because they want to be part of this, it’s just incredible.”