All summer plans Percy Rodriguez and Clayton Smith had been making have suddenly been changed.
For these two friends from the St. Francis Borgia Regional High School Class of 2001 there is only one thing taking center stage between now and August — “Death and McCootie,” an original play that Smith began writing back in 2002 when he was a college freshman at Mizzou and that Rodriguez began editing last year.
About two weeks ago, Smith and Rodrigeuz were notified that “Death and McCootie” has been accepted to this year’s New York International Fringe Festival, “the largest multi-arts festival in North America.”
According to the festival website, FringeNYC features “ . . . more than 200 companies from all over the world performing for 16 days in more than 20 venues.”
Being accepted to FringeNYC is a huge honor, Rodriguez told The Missourian in an email interview. Over 1,000 scripts are submitted for consideration.
Smith, son of Randall and Denise Smith, Villa Ridge, and Rodriguez, son of Reymundo and Pamela Rodriguez, Dutzow, don’t have a lot of details yet on where and when “Death and McCootie” will be showing. Organizers are still working out the schedule, but the festival runs from Aug. 9-25.
They do, however, already have a website, http://deathandmccootie.com, and a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/deathandmccootie, where people can follow all of the latest news. There’s even a Twitter account, @EdgarPMcCootie, with tweets from the main character.
The webpages also have ways for people to donate to the show.
“It takes money to produce a show, and we have very little of it,” said Smith. “We’re asking for donations from friends, family, colleagues and complete strangers to help us raise enough money to get this production up and running.
“On the Death and McCootie website, we have a donation page where we list several different levels of donation, along with perks that come with each donation amount. We’re giving donors copies of the script, signed prints of the poster, tickets to the show, invitations to the opening night party, and more!”
To get to the donation page, go to http://deathandmccootie.com/Donate.
Began at Borgia
Rodriguez’s fascination with the theater began when he was a child watching his mom play bass in the pit band for shows at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School. Later, when he was a student at SFBRHS, Rodriguez made his way to the stage.
Smith too was involved in theater at Borgia. During senior year he acted in “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Romeo and Juliet,” both with Rodriguez. But his real interest was in on the writing side.
So after graduating high school, Smith went to Mizzou where he majored in journalism with an emphasis on strategic communications. After college, he moved to St. Louis and worked as a copywriter for a few months before spending a summer in New York, “trying (and failing miserably) to work in advertising.”
He returned to St. Louis where he took a job editing a start-up magazine before working as a substitute teacher and later full-time teacher at SFBRHS. It was during this time that he also helped launch The Riverside Players community theater group in Washington.
Along the way, Smith co-wrote another script with friend and fellow SFBRHS Class of 2001 alumnus Tom Long. It’s called “Deus ex Machina: The 13th Labor of Hercules.”
“It’s an awful play (funny, but awful), and I’ll never understand why it got produced,” Smith said. “But there was a small storefront theater on Cherokee Street in St. Louis called The Tin Ceiling that read the script and wanted to produce it. Funny story: They actually got the name wrong on the posters, so instead of ‘The 13th Labor of Hercules,’ the subtitle became ‘Hercules’ 13th Labor.’ ”
By 2008, Smith had decided to give up teaching and returned to school as a grad student at Columbia College Chicago, where he earned a Master of Arts, entertainment, and media management degree.
Smith, who still lives in Chicago, has since worked with organizations like Joffrey Ballet (facilities management), Goodman Theatre (marketing) and Lyric Opera of Chicago (development).
Currently, he works in marketing for Ticketmaster, and focuses on a couple of personal writing projects during his time off — these include a collection of short stories, “Pants on Fire: A Collection of Lies,” that will be available as an ebook (Kindle and NOOK) for 99 cents early this summer, and a novel, “Apocalypticon,” which he’s hoping to publish before the end of the year.
Rodriguez, after graduating from Borgia, took his love for theater to Webster University, where he studied theater performance and business management. He performed in shows all the way through college, some at school and others with professional organziations, like the New Line Theatre Company, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Six Flags, and others.
After college, Rodriguez moved to New York City to become a professional actor and/or musician.
“My first main gig in NYC (was) the drummer for the band Future in Plastics, ” said Rodriguez. “We gigged all over the eastern seaboard, as well as several television and festival appearances.”
After a few years with the band, Rodriguez decided to get back to acting.
“I’ve been working my way through the New York theater scene as an actor and playwright,” he said. “I have acted in independent films, commercially (most recently ESPN/LG, Renaissance Hotels), and producing and hosting segments for the Theatre Fanatic (currently in postproduction). It is a website dedicated to getting the word out on off- and off-off-Broadway shows.”
‘Death and McCootie’
Smith began writing “Death and McCootie” in early 2002, his second semester in college, but with so much going on in his life at the time, it didn’t go very far.
“I wasn’t terribly focused on it, and it took me several years to finish the first draft,” he recalled. “By 2004, I think it was, I had a draft done, and it was pretty decent, but it was all over the place. It was an incredibly hectic script at that point. The plot was loose, there were all these bizarre cameos from historical figures (including Jesus), it was just a mess.
“It was really funny, but I’d definitely focused on humor over story and structure. I wanted to keep working on it, but it just needed so much work, the task was incredibly daunting, so I shelved it. For a long time.”
At some point, Rodriguez staged a reading of the unedited play with some friends of his who were actors.
“He (Rodriguez) really loved this show from the beginning, but we all knew how much work it needed,” Smith remarked.
Years rolled by and, while Smith thought a lot about “Death,” he never had the energy to tackle the edits it needed. Meanwhile, he and Rodriguez worked on other projects together, things that haven’t quite worked out.
“We’ve made so many tries at new projects, that on New Year’s Eve this past year I sent him a message saying, ‘Let’s start a new project this year and FINISH it,’ ” said Smith. “He told me that he was actually working on something, and he’d send it over in a few days. So a few days later, I got an email from him telling me to take a look at the attachment and tell him what I thought. I opened it up . . . and it was ‘Death and McCootie.’
“Percy had spent the last I don’t know how many months reworking the entire draft. He cut out a bunch of the nonsequiturs, he rewrote some of the dialogue, he added some new plot points, made the whole story more rounded. Basically, he did all the grunt work I was too terrified of tackling . . . So in January of this year, we had a pretty decent script on our hands.”
Smith, with his strength for writing, went over Rodriguez’s edits to smooth them out. They spent a few weeks retooling the story, trimming it a bit, adding new scenes and strengthening the whole play.
Rodriguez admits he “not the best” at writing dialogue, “but as an actor I know what will play, what moments could be fun to explore. And I think because of that, this is why Clayton and I make a good team.
“We can pitch ideas back and forth and flush them out, and as Clayton writes, I can see what will work or what won’t.”
Rodriguez said he began editing “Death” last year because he was tired, as an actor, of not getting the parts he thought he was right for.
“I went looking through all of our ideas for shows, and decided ‘Death and McCootie.’ ”
With encouragement from Rodriguez’s wife, Hollis, they submitted the play to FringeNYC in February, It took about three months before they got word that “Death” had been accepted.
They felt both relieved and ecstatic.
“We believe we have a strong product here, so we were confident of being selected,” said Rodriguez. “But there was a sense of relief (on my end) when we did finally get confirmation.”
“ ‘Relief’ is a good word,” added Smith. “ ‘Ecstatic’ is another . . . For me, the acceptance into Fringe is a validation of a few things; this play in particular, my writing in general, and the creative partnership that Percy and I have developed.
“When you tell people that you write a lot, they say, ‘Oh, you’re a writer!’ But until you get something published, or produced, or validated in some way, it’s hard to say, ‘Yep, I’m a writer.’ It sounds stupid, but it’s nice to be able to finally think, ‘Yeah, I am a writer. FringeNYC has deemed it so.’ ”
Their feelings of elation were quickly replaced with anxiety as they realized all of the work that needs to be done to get “Death” on stage. The show is being produced by P.I. Theatrical, a company headed by Rodriguez and Johnny Pruitt, who plays McCootie in the show. Rodriguez will play the role of Death.
“So we are dealing with budgets, hiring the design team and director, a company manager and a run crew, schedules, fundraising, publicity, and so on,” said Rodriguez. “It’s quite the undertaking. So, yes, lives are little more hectic as we balance putting up this show alongside our day jobs. Johnny (Pruitt) and I have meetings throughout the weeks with potential staff here in NYC, while Clayton mans the social networking.”
There’s an added challenge too with Smith living in Chicago. The team is relying on GChat, Google+ Hangouts, phone and email to stay connected on every aspect of the show.
“Death and McCootie” is a film noir-style farce. The story focuses on Edgar P. McCootie, a private investigator in 1944 Chicago who’s obsessed with cliches, whiskey, chauvinism and Humphrey Bogart.
Detectives are turning up murdered all around the city, and McCootie’s the last P.I. left in town. But Death comes for him too, and when he does, McCootie makes a desperate plea to save his own life.
If McCootie can prove that he’s a better Grim Reaper than Death, he’ll get to live. And while he’s out proving it, Death holds down the fort as detective.
Things go a little haywire with the Chicago detective killer closing in on the last P.I. in town, who’s masquerading as Death, who’s pretending to be the last P.I. in town.
Life After ‘Death’
Rodriguez and Smith are hoping, as playwrights, there will be life after “Death” closes at the Fringe Festival, and they have had some encouraging feedback.
“We’ve heard a lot of interest from theatre professionals in New York who think this could go on to a higher level of theatre,” said Smith. “Ideally, with the right amount of luck and hard work, this is a show that we’d love to take to an Off Broadway level someday. It depends on so many factors . . . but either way, Fringe is just the beginning for us.”
“I’m looking at ‘Death and McCootie’ as our introduction to the theatre world as playwrights,” added Rodriguez. “ . . . In terms of future projects, we’ve started pitching ideas back and forth. We haven’t quite decided what the next one will be but we have some exciting prospects.”
‘Take Pride in Our Own’
From where they stand today, playwrights of a play at the Fringe Festival, looking back on where they came from, a small Midwest community, both Rodriquez and Smith are quick to credit everyone who helped them along the way.
“I’m very proud of where I’m from, where I grew up,” said Rodriguez. “My mother was a teacher at Borgia High School, as well as Washington High School and (Our Lady of) Lourdes. My great-great-grandparents were Washingtonians . . . My family ties include Eckelkamps, Borgerdings, Jaspers, Holtmeiers, Sullentrups, to name a few.
“It’s important to me that people realize the production of this play is an opportunity for community to take pride in our own. Because Clayton nor I would be where we are today if we didn’t have our families, our town, our teachers, our schools.”
So whether people here can offer them a donation, a prayer, or simply a kind word, “all will be appreciated,” said Rodriguez.
“We are grateful for any and all help, in whatever form it may take.”