The opening production of all for One’s 2020-21 season, The Dreadful Journal of Phoebe Weems, had a relatively long history before its upcoming debut, with public readings and input.
But although the show is likely to have a broad and powerful effect on those who see it, the show’s influences are quiet and personal.
Phoebe’s creator, playwright Michael Wilhelm, is no stranger to fans of all for One, having provided the popular Turtle Soup and Bentley to their seasons over the years. Phoebe Weems, however, is a very different kind of play for Wilhelm, one reason it’s taken a decade or maybe more to get it on the stage.
“When my daughter was much younger, she experienced anxiety issues,” Wilhelm said. “When you’re in that situation, you wonder how you’re going to deal with these issues. As a parent, it’s frustrating because you wonder, ‘Is this going to go on forever?’ But as a writer you always want to do good stuff, and this seemed like a chance to do good stuff.”
His daughter is now grown, and he said that while those problems are in her past, she was a bit reticent to share those experiences with audiences.
“She’s 19 now and on her merry way,” he said. “She’s an intelligent child, an analytical child, but she just had these issues to deal with. At first she didn’t like the idea of me writing about it because she didn’t want people to know. But as the story was being told, and she saw several script changes along the way, she saw how the storyline affected people. Then she said, ‘Maybe we should tell the story.’”
When asked if writing it helped him deal with his own feelings about the ordeal, he said it did help to view something with humor.
“Some people journal to get those feelings out,” he said. “It helps to just set it on paper rather than just playing around with it in my head. And sometimes it’s just finding the hilarity of the situation which I’m not sure is entirely healthy. It’s like your car is going into the river, and you’re in the car. And while it’s terrible, you also see how funny it is. It’s just one way to deal with a situation.”
From a child’s perspective
Lauren Nichols, artistic director for all for One and herself a prolific playwright, is a big fan of Wilhelm’s, but for a variety of reasons she long avoided the idea of producing it as part of an all for One season.
“The play has been around for quite awhile,” she said. “He wrote it before Bentley, but I wasn’t quite sure it was right for us. It’s geared to kids, which we really weren’t doing at the time, and I just felt like it has some issues. But after some more reading of it, it kept percolating, and I finally thought, ‘This may have some potential.’”
Phoebe found an audience at last when all for One hosted a reading of plays at Sweetwater called Fresh Finds. It was an opportunity not only for the play to be heard by an audience but for Wilhelm to get feedback from said audience, something he found extremely helpful.
“Just hearing it read by other voices was great,” Wilhelm said. “But afterward, the audience asked questions and provided us with some great feedback. You know, it’s kind of like the way they screen movies. An audience will see the movie and will say what they liked and didn’t like, and then they’ll often make changes based on that feedback. I spent so much time by myself with it that it was great to hear what other people thought.”
One especially challenging aspect was writing from the perspective of a child, something which his now-grown daughter was able to help him do more realistically.
“This is actually children’s theater,” Wilhelm said. “It’s written about children and for children which can be hard to do when you’re not a child anymore. Sometimes I’d ask my daughter, and she’s say, ‘Kids don’t talk like that anymore, Dad.’ Then I’d have some reference to something and wonder, ‘Are My Little Ponys even a thing anymore?’”
Everything is in flux
With themes of anxiety and bullying, always relevant for young people of any generation but perhaps even more so now, The Dreadful Journal of Phoebe Weems is a perfect kickoff to this year’s all for One season.
Still to come are the return of the popular A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas in November, Mary’s Wedding in February, and The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church, which opens in April.
As with most performances these days, Nichols said some details about seating and mask-wearing are in flux, but she invited visits to their recently redesigned website for up-to-the-minute details.
She also suggests that larger groups who are comfortable sitting together reserve tickets when they can, something which will allow them to put more people into the ArtsLab while maintaining distancing policies.
While the entire season provides plenty of drama and comedy, perhaps none is more powerful than what Wilhelm has brought to fruition after a decade of writing.
“It really addresses fear and bullying and the things that kids are facing today,” he said. “It talks about evaluating people based on their appearances. I hope people come here and see the show and leave feeling like they aren’t alone.”
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