Tag Archives: hot mess

Writing Original Productions Photos by Jeff Sprang Photography

Writing Original Productions: An Interview with Michael Thomas

by Colleen Cook with Michael Thomas

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have favorite shows that we do here at the Renaissance, and the upcoming production of Hot Mess: A Lethal New Musical is easily my most favorite thing that’s ever been on our stage. It’s poignant and hilarious, crude and bold, and absolutely endearing. One of my favorite elements of Hot Mess is the fact that it’s “stage on stage,” meaning that the audience is seated on the stage with the performance happening right in front of them; when a show pushes the boundaries the way Hot Mess does, the audience is just as much a player as any of the eccentric characters on stage. (Maddie Beer, Colton Penwell, and I take a deep dive into this particular aspect in our recent podcast about Hot Mess, which you can listen to here)

Truth is, I feel this enthusiastic about everything our brilliant Artistic Director Michael Thomas writes: in my opinion his creative genius has raised the bar for the performing arts in Mansfield and I’m thrilled that we get to see his creations on our stage. Michael has a remarkable background in the performing arts (which he talks about on an early episode of our podcast and in this recent blog post) and as a writer for stage, TV, and film. Since his background looks so different from my own, I wanted to learn more about what it takes to write a musical from scratch:

Colleen Cook: When and how did you start writing musicals? Do you have a favorite one that you’ve written?

Michael Thomas: When I was in the 7th or 8th grade, I started to write these silly parodies – probably inspired by the sketches I saw on the Carol Burnett Show. Her writers would spoof classic films, such as Gone With the Wind and Sunset Boulevard, and I couldn’t get enough of them. I started to write parodies of Broadway musicals – complete with songs. The only one I can remember off the top of my head, I called The Sound of Her Music – which told the story of Marla Von Tramp and her crusade to corrupt the children she was meant to govern. Classy stuff. But remember, I was 12.

As far as a favorite piece I’ve written? I think, like all writers, I have a love/hate relationship with my original works. I don’t know that I have a favorite, but I definitely have favorite moments from the original shows that have premiered at the Renaissance. The despairing high school boy from Remember Me Always who pens a heart-rendering letter to his television hero because he’s thinks it’s the only friend he’s got. Or the frustrated teacher, from that same piece, who is so addled by the idea of teaching sex ed, that she advises all the girls to get hysterectomies. I love the couple in Hot Mess who adopt more and more children – not to better their lives, but to add to their celebrity standing. Or Sally from Twilight Gardens, who, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, proudly hands a caregiver a picture she’s tried to color from a child’s coloring book. I’m incredibly lucky because I’ve not only gotten to write and stage new musicals for the Ren, but also productions for Lori Turner’s RYOT shows, Neos Dance Theatre’s original ballets, collaborations with the Mansfield Symphony as well as the scripts for our Teddy Bear concerts.

CC: How did you come up with the idea for Hot Mess?

MT: All year long, we get emails from agents pitching shows they would like us to book – and nine times out of ten, they are an incredibly weak, hastily-written, hodgepodge of ideas performed by a thrown-together cast but given a clever, topical title. Spoofs based on 50 Shades of Gray, The Real Housewives or one-joke-shows snickering at menopause or mid-life crises. I don’t watch reality television – in fact the best decision I ever made was to have my satellite dish yanked out a few years ago – so I had no idea who or what a Kardashian was – or why anyone would have an interest in plumbing the depths of a Duck Dynasty. But still, I was fascinated by why the public was so obsessed with watching unfortunate souls paraded out to air their dirty laundry on cable TV. I knew I didn’t want to just plop a bunch of silly characters up on stage and try to fill a two hour show, so I turned to classic literature to find a story to use as a basis. I searched through all of Shakespeare and even golden oldies like The Iliad and Beowulf. Nothing worked. Then I started to think about the classic Greek drama, Medea, written by Euripedes in 431 BC. Here was a woman who came from nothing, fought her way to the top, got kicked to the curb by her husband, then did something terrible to get her name back in the headlines again. It seemed like the perfect fit – and despite the fact that it was written 24 centuries ago, improbably modern and topical.

CC: When you’re writing a musical, what are some of the considerations you make?

MT: Well, first and foremost, you have to come up with a good story. And then you have to think about whether your story is song-worthy. Is there a reason for the song to be there? Even in the silliest of shows there has to be a reason your characters open their mouths and start to sing.

CC: You have a gift for writing things that are really hilarious. How can you tell if a joke will work?

MT: Even after all these years I still wonder if a joke will work or not. Years ago, I wrote what I thought was a hilarious line for our musical version of Hamlet that ran in Chicago for years and years. Claudius and Polonius are trying to think of a way to trap Hamlet. Claudius excitedly proclaims “I have an idea!” – and Polonius shouts “Is it Velcro? Have you invented Velcro?” To this day that still makes me laugh – but when played in front of an audience, we got crickets. Not a single titter. So you really just have to wait and see how and if the audience responds before you know if the joke works.

CC: Is it different writing for a live setting than when you’re writing for screen?

MT: Yes. When writing for the screen you use a real economy of words because you usually rely more on the action. I’ll use The Wizard of Oz for an example. On stage, Dorothy might land in Munchkinland and say:

Dorothy: Oh my goodness, this is a strange land indeed. I’ve never seen anything like this in Kansas. Look at the tiny houses and the tiny streets. The strange plants and beautiful waterfalls. It’s so beautiful! Do you think this is all a dream?

The screenplay, however, focuses more on action – so that the scene reads like this:

Dorothy opens the door and the world is suddenly vibrant and colorful, filled with oversized flora and crystal blue waterfalls. Here and there tiny houses, complete with tiny doors and tiny windows, dot the landscape. She rubs her eyes, wondering if it’s all a dream.

Dorothy: I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

When working with first time writers on their screenplay, (and believe me, EVERYONE has a screenplay idea!), I point out the fact that most of us have spent our entire lives watching movies and television – so screenwriting and story structure is probably a lot more familiar to us than we realize.


At the time of publication, we still have a few seats left for the upcoming production of Hot Mess, but they’ll likely sell out soon so don’t delay. More info and tickets here. By the way, it’s chock-full of “mature content,” and for adults only.

Year In Review

Highlights of 2016, Looking into 2017… and a BIG announcement!

by Mike Miller, President & CEO

This has been one of the most exciting and expansive years in my history with the Renaissance, and it’s all thanks to our incredible staff, board, volunteers, donors, and patrons! We have truly got the best team of people working together to bring outstanding arts and culture to Mansfield, and I am proud to be a part of it.

This year, the Renaissance has reduced its total debt down to $150,000, down from $1.2 million when I took the helm in 2010. We’ve done this through streamlining our operations and programming, fundraising for debt reduction, and improving our business practices. We want the Renaissance to exist in Mansfield forever, and adopting a sustainable business model and operating within our means was critical, and we couldn’t have done it without our incredible team.

Another highlight for the Renaissance was Michael Thomas’ original production of Hot Mess: The Musical. Never before have we sold out a production before it even opened, but that was the case with this hysterical new musical that showcases Michael’s adept skill for musical comedy. Even more exciting, renowned Broadway producer Cameron Mackintosh has taken interest in the production and we will be taking our cast to workshop it in New York City in April 2017, following our spring revival of the production on our stage in Mansfield. We couldn’t be more excited for our artists at the Renaissance!

Our Mansfield Symphony conductor search has been a remarkable process, with over 100 outstanding applicants from all over the world for the position of music director! This speaks to the quality and reputation of our orchestra to have such a wealth of individuals vying for the position. Having the opportunity to showcase three of those conductors on our stage this season has already been a treat for our community.

And now for the big announcement…!!!

For me, one of the most exciting things of 2016 is only first being publicly announced right now, and that is our acquisition of a 15,000 square foot building at 166 Park Avenue West. Despite our large building, we have so many educational programs, performance groups, ensembles, and productions rehearsing in our space that we are constantly running out of usable rehearsal and performance spaces in our building. When we approached our board about a building that was for sale by the Richland County Land Bank for $89.00, but required $150,000 in work just to make it usable, rather than back away our board ran in and raised and supplied the funds in 10 days, fully funded through cash and in-kind donations. In particular, massive thanks go to Bill Hope of Alumni Roofing for providing a new roof for the building, and Ary Van Harlingen of Shaw Ott Medical and his team for remediating the extensive mold in the building and gutting it, as well as one anonymous funder.

Over the coming months we’ll talk a lot more about this space with you. We’ll be conducting a feasibility study, thanks to support from the Richland County Foundation, in order to determine what the community needs from this space. We know we’d like to see more rehearsal space, a more intimate performance space, and education classrooms. Keep your eyes open for a lot more conversation about this space soon. If you’d like to hear just a little more, you can listen to the Renaissance Podcast episode the Chairman of our Board, Rand Smith, and I released this week.

The Renaissance is committed to being the cultural hub for our community. We are energized by the partnerships we’ve formed with our region’s non-profits and we are delighted by the support we continually receive to keep our program vibrant and expanding. Thank you for making this the greatest job on earth.