Thoughts From Behind The Scenes: The Writer’s Perspective

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During the production process of Dead Man’s Shoes, we’re posting a number of journal entries from folks working in different areas of the show.  Here’s a piece from the playwright, Joseph Zettelmaier.

Hi there. Joseph Zettelmaier here. I’m the writer of Dead Man’s Shoes, and also of this rehearsal blog for Williamston Theatre. I think I can still safely call it a “rehearsal blog”, as previews still count as rehearsals.

I began writing Dead Man’s Shoes in late December of 2010. It was my first foray into the Western genre. Why a Western? Because I’d never written one before, and that’s a big motivator for me. Whenever I start a new project, I try to explore things that I’ve never tackled before. I believe if theatre artists don’t constantly challenge themselves, then they can’t really challenge their audiences either. As I researched the material, many things rose to the surface. It became clear that most of the great Westerns are revenge stories. They also have a surprising amount of humor, albeit very grim humor. I immediately decided to tell the story from the point of view of a “black hat”. The outlaw can be a lot of fun to write, especially when they are products of a morally gray world. And so Injun Bill Picote was born.

Is he a good man? Absolutely not. He’s spent almost all of his life as a bandit, a bushwhacker and when needs be, a murderer. For him, killing is just a byproduct of the life he lives, and I doubt he’s ever lost a minute’s sleep over the things he’s done. And yet he is not a man bereft of a code. There are things he believes in, even if he doesn’t fully understand them. When his sole friend in the world is not only killed but defiled, something snaps inside Bill. He comes to realize that there is a line that no man should cross, and he dedicates himself to righting the horrible injustice done to his friend.

Injun Bill is a product of the world he lives in. And the world of the Wild West is full of freedom, of beautiful nature…and of abominable acts that are hard to imagine. My research revealed no small number of these acts. But it also became clear to me that the West of the 1800s was a land trying to find itself. Caught between various countries, yet not truly belonging to any. A bizarre mix of ancient cultures and industrial “progress”. A land of plenty beyond plenty, both in mineral goods and natural resources, where a man could stake a claim and his nearest neighbor would be 50 miles away. Its lawlessness allowed for more freedom than most had ever experienced, but it was a double-edged sword. And for me, the edge of the sword is where Injun Bill Picote lives.

The more I studied the Old West, the more parallels I saw to the world we live in now. After the Civil War, the West began a great change. The thrill, hope and excitement for the future were suddenly replaced by fear. As increased statehood & annexation into America became inevitable, the Western people looked at the coming years with a sense of foreboding. I think that’s a feeling we’re all too familiar with now.

But even in the middle of the bleakest desert, cactus flowers grow. A group of settlers, strangers all, can come together and become a community. A need for mutual defense turns into mutual respect, and then into friendship. That’s what I learned about the Old West. It was a harsh time, a brutal time, but not a hopeless time. As an uncertain future loomed on the horizon, many people formed communities. They found strength and comfort in each other, and passed along the old stories. Not out of fear, but out of hope. Or as a smarter fella than me once said…

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear”- Mark Twain

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