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FAQ: Kevin M Reese

[Over the years many questions have been directed at Kevin M Reese via email, workshops, and  personal conversations.  We decided to post some of them-- with his responses-- here.]

Q: Why do you write your own music? Wouldn't your shows be better if you collaborated with someone else?
A:  When I was writing my first show, Little Red Riding Hood back in 1993, I had a wonderfully talented musician working on the music with me. I didn't have all the MIDI equipment that I have today so I was having to do it all by hand (and I'm NOT a pianist!).  I wrote the lyrics and vocal melody lines and she was going to write the accompaniments.  She came back all excited with a song that used MOST of my lyrics, but the rest of it was entirely from her.  It was nice-- but it wasn't MY song.  I asked her to go back to my melody and I commissioned her to just do the arrangements for me.  Her arrangements are better than anything I could have come up with at the time (actually, they're some of my best songs) and I'm very grateful for her work.  But I've worked alone ever since.

Would my shows be better if I had someone else do the music?  Maybe.  But it wouldn't be my show (please don't deduce that I'm a power freak.  If you knew what playwrights go through, the give and take that goes on during the original production, you'd understand).  When I write a show, the songs are so integral to the story.   When I write a lyric, I have the melody going in my head.  The accompaniment I come up with (with the help of MIDI software) is my idea of how the song should go.  Having another person involved in the creative process would only take up valuable time as I waited for them to come up with the accompaniment I liked.  If I ever got a musician involved with my shows, it would be to reduce my accompaniments down to piano so other theatres could use a live pianist during their production, if they desired. 

Q:  Why are most of your shows fairy tales? Why don't you write many original stories?
A:  Because adapting fairy tales are so much easier!  I grew up with those stories.  All the basic elements are already there:  plot, conflict, rising action, resolution-- I just take what's there and add my two cents.  I've only been writing scripts since 1993.  I'm a relative newcomer.  I'm still learning my craft.   I've done a few original scripts (Toy Land, Buddy, the Magic Snowman, Cuddle Bears, Squash It!,  Boo Castle, Adventure of the Fluoride Fandango) and they're HARD.  I'll eventually get into writing original stories, but right now, I'm honing my skills in the shallow end of the pool.  By the way, if you've ever been around child audiences you know that writing for kids is no piece of cake.  They're a very demanding audience in their own right (but also very gracious!).

Q:  Which of your shows is your favorite?
A:  Whichever one a theatre is considering!  Actually, I have a lot of favorites.  Little Red Riding Hood will always be a favorite of mine because it was my first project and it is dedicated to the memory of  my Mom.  It is probably my tightest show and it's been performed the most so far.  I also wrote the role of the Wolf for myself to play.  It toured for seven months.  I have great memories of that show.  I like Beauty & the Beast a lot, as well as Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland.  I just revised Pinocchio for a touring production, adding more songs, and I like how that runs now.  There's really nothing all that special about my A Christmas Carol (it's 95% Dickens-- I just cut it down to under an hour), but it's done a lot and it's produced every year by the Wichita Children's Theatre in Kansas, directed by- and starring John (JB) Boldenow and I cry every time (in a good way!) from his portrayal of Scrooge.  I look forward to seeing that every year.  Among my shorter shows, I really like how The Three Billy Goats Gruff turned out.  The Little Red Hen, The Elves and the Shoemaker and The Three Little Kittens are still fun for me to watch.  Toy Land is my favorite original script.

It is really like talking about your kids.  There are things you love about them, and things you wish had turned out differently-- but you love them the way they are-- and you are so proud when someone else appreciates them.  And of course since I'm marketing the scripts myself, whenever I think of an improvement, I can revise the shows over the years!  Sometimes, when I'm in the audience for one of my shows (I travel a few thousand miles a year to catch various productions around the country), I sit back and marvel that I actually had a part in what I'm seeing onstage.

Q:  Which of your shows is your least favorite?
A:  Oh, yeah, right!  Then nobody would produce that show anymore!  Actually, I don't have a "least favorite."  If I didn't like the show, I wouldn't offer it to theatres to produce.  Case in point is the musical version of my Night Before Christmas.  I felt so guilty seeing it in my catalogue that I finally took it off.  I plan to rework it and maybe then I'll make it available for production.  It has one of my very favorite songs I've written in it ("Mom's and Dad's Like Christmas, too")

Q:  What are your thoughts about theatres making changes to your scripts?
A:  They can't, it's forbidden.  I like what I wrote or I would have changed it myself.  I've been in the theatre long enough to know that theatres revise scripts all the time:  A director sees a script and thinks of something else that s/he believes may be funnier or easier to stage.  I did it-- a lot (that's why I got into playwrighting to begin with).  The problem I have with that is that my name is on the program as the writer and I may get blamed for a director's poor choice.  The writer in me would rather they find another script to produce and leave mine the way I wrote it.   But on the other hand, I am also a businessman and I want theatres to produce my shows.  I'm adapting my shows all the time.  I'd rather a director just come to me and ask me to make some changes for his production.  More times than not, I would make changes for them (usually I'll incorporate many of the changes I made for them into the published script-- so It's a win-win situation).  I don't charge theatres when I adapt my own scripts-- but I will sue the pants off of everyone involved if I find out about a change that may adversely affect my reputation or the marketability of my scripts.   I take the copyright notice that is found in the front of all my scripts very seriously.

Now, of course, this doesn't apply to cutting the script or rearranging the script-- only to ADDING to the script.  Neither does it apply to minor "cosmetic" changes:   A word here or there;  changing a "he" to a she" if your changing the character's sex because of your casting; changing a line to correspond to your technical set up (referring to a blue fence that is green in your production would be silly); updating a contemporary reference (the reference to a film that was popular in 1994 can be changed to a popular film of 2003 with no problem).  What I really have a problem with is adding jokes, changing the words to songs, adding another character or another song (jeez!), etc.  The bottom line is:   Just ask.  It doesn't hurt to ask, the worse thing that could happen is I'll deny your request-- but most likely I'll find a way to satisfy your needs.  It sure beats a lawsuit.

Q:  How does a theatre approach you to make a revision to your script for their production?
A:  With lots of candy and a big smile!  Actually, it's really pretty easy.  Most theatres call or email and say that they like one of my scripts but they need help working around a limitation.  For example, one theatre was working with another Goldilocks & the Three Bears script and for some reason had to abandon it.  They liked my version, but they had two Baby Bears (twins) leftover from the previous script and didn't want to have to let one of the actors go.   They asked me if I could revise the script.  I did, and it turned out pretty well (I NEVER would have come up with that concept on my own, but I doubt I'll ever sell that version to another theatre because now there are 4 bears).  I've added characters to scripts when a theater needed to use more actors in their production.   We now offer non-musical versions of all my shows because of a lot of requests I've received over the years by theatres.  I don't charge theatres for my revising one of my shows because I'll probably turn around and offer that revision to other theatres.

What won't I revise?  That's a tough question.  I  won't make any changes just to make a character more "politically correct."  I won't change the story to accentuate a particular lifestyle or social/political stance.    I will suggest to a theatre (who asks for changes that I am not willing to make) that they contact a more capable playwright than I to write such a play from scratch.  I like my stories the way they are, that's why I wrote them the way I did-- but I am willing to make SMALL changes to accommodate a particular theatre's particular limitations.

Q:  The musical styles in your shows are so diverse:  Rock, Pop, Country, Caribbean, Rap, Funk-- how do you write your music?
A:  Oh, the musical Muse visits me in a dream and I merely. . . .  Nah, I do it all on a computer.  I don't really consider myself a "musician" or a "composer."  I am a "COMPU-SICIAN."   I write the lyrics, melody line and chord chart of the song, then I input the chords  into a nifty little "generation" program (Band-in-a-Box) that spits out an accompaniment in whatever style I choose.  I then fine tune it and convert it to a MIDI file and dump that into a "sequencer" program (SONAR) and doctor up the accompaniment until it sounds the way I want it.  Then I use my trusty Roland SC-88 Sound Canvas sound module and record the accompaniment as WAV files in five different keys and burn that onto a CD to be used as the Performance Soundtrack.  And finally, I dump the MIDI file into Finale to print out the sheet music.  The hard part is coming up with the melody and chord charts.  After that, it takes about 8 hours per song to get it ready for the actors to use.

I suppose most "real" composers will Pooh-Pooh my technique (some have).   That's OK.  I spent twenty years as a musical theatre performer-- that's where I learned my musicianship and instead of spending ten years developing my piano skills, I spent more than that learning computer and recording skills.  The bottom line is:  my kids come back from seeing one of my shows and they're singing my songs!  That's all the encouragement I need. 

Q: You use a computer to write your songs?  Isn't that cheating?
A:  I don't think so.  If it weren't for computers and the software I use, the 31 musical shows and almost 200 songs that I have "written" would not exist to entertain the million kids that have seen the shows. 

I look at it this way:  a "real" composer has spent years and years developing their skills:   learning piano and other instruments, music theory, orchestration and songwriting.  I have spent years and years developing MY skills:   musicality and computer technology.  Through my training and professional experience as a working singing actor, I have studied lots of songs and musical styles, I have a sense of what is pleasing for an actor to sing and what is pleasing for an audience to hear.  Using my abilities at the computer I can find a marriage between the lyrics I write and the accompaniment that I feel best suits them.  Rock groups rely on members of their group to provide input ("licks") on their instruments for the songwriter, I rely on the software to provide the input for me.  I listen to what the program gives me.  If I like it, I use it, if I don't like it, I make adjustments to the program until I DO like it.  The computer is my "band." 

I can't express my gratitude enough to Peter Gannon and his gang at PG Music for their wonderful accompaniment generator, Band-in-a-Box.  If I hadn't come across that software package when I did, I would have given up trying to write musical plays for kids.

FYI:  My computer set up is:  HARDWARE-- Intel Quad-core running Vista -64 with 4 GB RAM,  Fireface 800, Sonar Pro, Digitech Studio Vocalist EX vocal processor, Alesis Monitor One studio monitors,  BBE Sonic Maximizer, Behringer Powerplay Pro Headphone Amp, Sure SM-58 microphones,  SOFTWARE:  Band-in-a-Box, Powertracks Pro Audio, SONAR, Finale, Easy CD Creator, and WordPerfect.  PLUG-INS:  Native Instruments Komplete, UA-1.  My proficiency with all that "stuff" allows me to write the shows I write.

Q: Would you consider letting a theatre do their own arrangements to your songs?  We have a very talented Musical Director and would like to use a large band.    
A:  No.  Never.  I did that once-- hated it.  A theatre I've worked with many times was doing my Pinocchio and wanted to have their Music Director make new arrangements of the songs.  They had a special sound they felt their audiences expected from their shows and promised that only the accompaniment would be changed-- not the melodies/harmonies.  I didn't recognize most of the songs!  It was my show-- but it wasn't.  It was kind of like sending your child to a friend's house for a slumber party and when they come home they have assumed a British dialect!  They're the same kid, look the same, smell the same, but they just sound different and you wish you had never let them go to the darn slumber party.  I imagine someday I'll provide band charts so theatres can have their own bands play the scores, but right now it's only available on CD-- sounding EXACTLY as I like it.

Q: Why are you marketing your plays yourself?  Why don't you let a "real" publisher handle your plays?
A:  KMR Scripts is a "real" publisher.  KMR Scripts is a registered publishing company with Bowker's Books in Print.  But aside from that, I really believe I can do a better job than they can.  Other publishers won't help you adapt one of their shows to your stage-- but I will.   They won't give you permission to video tape your show for archive purposes-- but I will.  If, at 10:00 PM on dress rehearsal night, you run into a problem with the music or need help making an effect work, they won't answer their phone-- but I will.   Nobody knows these shows as well as I.  Nobody else would give you the special treatment when you produce my shows like I will.  How many thousands of  shows does Samuel French handle?  I only handle 73--mine.  Who can afford to give you more personalized service?

Probably the biggest reason I handle it myself is so that I can continue to improve the scripts over the years.  The Odd Couple script Neil Simon signed over to Samuel French forty years ago is the same script producers are given now.  I'm sure Mr. Simon has thought of a couple changes he'd like to make to the script since then.   I certainly don't mean to imply that I am in Mr. Simon's league when it comes to playwrighting, but when I think of an improvement to one of my shows, I can easily make the change and offer it to my customers.

I would be lying to you if I didn't also mention that I don't want to share my fees and royalties with anybody else.  But if you compare prices, my royalty is as cheap (if not cheaper) as any other show out there of similar length and my music and script fees are cheaper.  Also, as far as I know, none of the "real" publishing houses offer Performance Soundtracks on CD with each song in 5 different keys.  Or, if they do, I was the first back in 1994.  Man, I should have trademarked that idea!

Q: How do you decide what scripts to write?
A:  I only write shows from stories that appeal to me.   I'll probably never write a Little Prince script because I don't like the story.  I grew up with fairy tales and have some very fond memories of listening to them as a kid.  When I  wrote for Wichita Children's Theatre, we  would sit down and plan the next season around January.  I'd  tell them what stories I would like to adapt and they chose which ones they wanted.   I've never just written a script and peddled it for a first production.  I've always had a theatre waiting for it.  The few original scripts I've written came about when I expressed an interest to develop a particular plotline and the producer liked the idea, so we went with it.  Monica Flynn (producer) and John (JB) Boldenow (director) with Wichita Children's Theatre have demonstrated an amazing amount of faith in me because they've actually printed the season brochures way before the script was ever written. 

What stories appeal to me?  Ones that I can inject my sense of humor into.   Ones that allow me to create fun, wacky characters.  Ones that have a happy ending.  I don't like  preachy stories, stories that deal with death or have sad endings.  My shows are for entertainment, but, of course, there are some life lessons to be learned from fairy tales (that's why they were written in the first place).  I don't strip or sanitize the stories of negative characters, but I try to find a way to make those characters grow and learn a lesson.   I know that doesn't always happen in "real life," but kids will learn the difference between fantasy and reality soon enough.

Q: Do you miss performing?
A:  No. . . . I mean, Yes. . . . I mean, sometimes. . . .   Aw, I don't know!  That's not where my life is right now.   I got to perform once or twice a year when an actor got sick or when some special production came up at Wichita Children's Theatre.  I performed for over a million people (75% of them were kids) when I was "acting."  Now, I'm just a family man, a stay-at-home Dad.  I wouldn't enjoy being in a show somewhere knowing that I was missing my little girl's first word or not be there when our oldest comes home from school all excited about something he learned that day.  It sounds corny-- but it's true.   Whatever "strokes" I was getting onstage as an actor, I get in different ways now.  What I do now is VERY rewarding to me.  Plus, in a way, when a theatre across the country does one of my shows, I'm there with them.

I've done three roles in the past 15 years-- each as emergency favors for  friends.  A few years ago a dear friend of mine asked me to be "Atticus" in his production of "To kill a Mockingbird."    I did an OK job, had fun with the cast/crew and really enjoyed the experience.  But I discovered an interesting thing:  I don't really miss performing for adults.  I'm so lucky to have found that out-- many people go the rest of their lives wondering if they made the right choices.  I have no doubts whatsoever.

Now, put me in front of a group of kids.....  That's another story!

Q: Who or what influenced your life the most?
A:  The list is a mile long.  I believe we are the product of everything we experience.  We are influenced by people we love as well as people we hate, our triumphs and our worst failures and mistakes.  Everything we see, hear, feel, think, do (and don't do!), and dream changes us-- for good or bad-- and I am the person I am today because of it. 

I thank my God for everything I have, but as far as people go,  number one would have to be my family:  my Mom and Dad and my brothers and sister, my wife, Janelle, and our kids.  Leonard and Edie Gittinger, my "adopted" grandparents.  My Aunt Cathy and Uncle Rocky Weaver got me into my very first play when I was 15.  Karen Reece talked me into auditioning for the chorus of "Li'l Abner" in high school (and I ended up getting the lead-- and catching the acting bug!).  Barb Robinson helped me get accepted and get a scholarship to the School of the Ozarks theatre department.   John Mizell,  Jim Meikle, Carveth Osterhaus, and Kay Creed were crucial to my training as an actor/singer.  Kevin Segner, Dr. John Moad, Denis Schoenhofer, Dr. Glen Patton, Mark Pease, Albie Frizzle, and Kelly Mulcahy have had an enormous influence on me as friends.  John (JB) Boldenow, Monica Flynn and Wayne Bryan have not only been wonderful mentors "in the business" but I've enjoyed their friendship as well. 

Q:  What makes you qualified to write shows for very young audiences?
A:  I don't know that I'm "qualified," but I've written over 70 shows for audiences under five years of age.  I have had no "formal" training in dealing with youngsters, I never took any college courses in child development or child psychology.  I never had any idea I would be concentrating on children's theatre back then.  But I was a professional actor for 10 years, doing shows for children.  During most of that time we would tour one show and perform it over 100 times.  That experience allowed me to see the effects that subtle performance changes had on kids of all ages.  During my time with Wichita Children's Theatre (1988-1996) I designed and presented over 300 classes and workshops for kids age 3 and up.  As a result, I am comfortable speaking and playing with any age of children and I'm confident that they are comfortable with me as well.  I guess the biggest part of my "training" is from my experience as a stay-at-home Dad to our four kids.

Q:  What are your thoughts about copyrights and copyright infringement?
A:  I don't really want to add to the volumes of things said about this-- but I will.  Suffice it to say that I am in support of protecting my copyrights-- my property rights-- as a creative artist.  I think the current copyright terms are fair.  I own the copyright to my creations for as long as I am alive and can receive income from the exploitation of my work, then after I'm gone, my heirs own the copyright for 75 more years.  Then the copyright expires and it goes into public domain to be available to anyone for any purpose for FREE.  The problem is, a lot of people can't seem to wait that long to get their grubby little hands on other people's property.  I could not afford to write shows or compose music if I was not being paid for it.  I would have to be working 40-60 hours a week at a Walmart to put food on my family's table.

I've noticed that a lot of people think  "if it's on the Internet, it's public domain" because you can't get more "public" than the Internet.   A lot of folks have the attitude that if you change the form of the work (i.e.:   if you change some of the words of a poem, if you re-arrange the music of a song convert it into a MIDI file or if you take a picture of a statue),  it's fair game .   That's not true.  The creator of the original work (or whoever the creator designated as the owner or the copyright) owns the property rights of EVERY form of that work-- whether s/he created that derivative form or not. By "property rights" I mean the sole right to control how a work is exploited. 

Let's go to the hypothetical for a moment.  If every creative artist (writers, composers, artists, computer programmers, etc) were to completely destroy all traces of their work, how would that impact me?  If my answer was that it would be an inconvenience or that I would miss having that work-- but that I would find an alternative replacement (or I would create my own unique work)-- I would say that is a healthy and legitimate response.   If my answer was that it would effect my livelihood (my ability to make income), my next question would be:  has that creative artist received the compensation (monetary or otherwise) s/he is lawfully entitled?  In other words, am I receiving LEGAL and ETHICAL financial gain from someone else's creation.   If I am, that is good.  If I am not. . . .

Q:  My child wants to pursue acting as a career.  Any advice?
A:  Lock him (or her) in his room until he forgets this crazy notion!  Actually, I'm only half-kidding.  When I'm asked this question in a workshop, I say just about everything I can to dissuade kids from entering the arts as a profession.  Not because I don't think it's a good profession to be in (I'm in it myself!), but because the fail rate is so high in theatre.  The odds are great that in 5 years they won't be in it anymore.   I figure if anything I  say can make them think twice about pursuing theatre as a profession, I'm doing them a favor because they don't have the "umph" to live that kind of life.  Most people would be very satisfied to join a community theatre or find some other avocational outlet for their creative juices.  But if a kid is REALLY meant to be in the theatre, nothing I say-- or anyone else-- will deter them.  I believe it's very similar to the calling into the ministry. Read an actual letter from a concerned Mom.

Q:  We like your script-- but want you to change the ending.  Will you do it?
A:  No... probably not... perhaps.... maybe....  It depends on WHY you want the ending changed and WHAT you want the ending changed to.  I adapt fairy tales for kids' entertainment-- not for social issue education.  I try to keep to the original plot line as much as I can (though I usually up-date it) and especially try to keep the message of the original.  I get occasional requests to make my shows more politically correct.  I won't do that.  I'll let someone come up with a new fairy tale that conveys a specific political stance.  I like the message/ending of my stories or I wouldn't have written them that way.  I am amazed  by people wanting to infuse a fairy tale with statements and messages that were not addressed in the original fairy tale.  I realize theatres can get funding easier if their shows address pet social issues but I think in the long run, they're doing the kids an injustice.  Not every fairy tale needs to address racial discrimination, child abuse, or sexual harassment.  There are plenty of very good plays written especially to deal with those issues.  If they want to commission (and pay for) a new version, I'll put in any kind of message they want --well, almost any kind . 
Sometimes a wolf dressed up like a grandma is just after some cookies. . . .

Q:  Why do you have an FAQ?
A:  I'm a writer.  I have an innate need to communicate.  If I'm not working on a show, I HAVE to write something.  You think this is verbose?-- you should see my blog.  (Don't worry-- it's on a very isolated website that nobody will ever see until after I'm gone.  heh-heh-heh....)


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