The road to making '13 Seconds in Kent State' - The development of a LIVE PERFORMANCE online drama
All five episodes of this drama web series are available to watch on The Outcasts Creative YouTube Channel.
At some point in my youth, I had seen the images of the events of Kent State, May 4th, 1970, but never really understood exactly what had happened there or why. Who knew that one day, I would end up tackling the subject head on? April of 2021 saw the broadcast of our first live performance of the first part of our contribution to that story. (there's five parts in all) To understand the path that led me to write this drama and to it coming to be performed online by The Outcasts, (big love to Dickon 'Helicopter' Tolson, who runs this band of actors with me) we have to go back to 2002/2003. At that time, I was pretty exhausted, had just finished the stage production of The Victoria Climbie Inquiry, a demanding show and during which, unknown to my cast, I was extremely ill. Having battled a cancer related illness, there was a real sense at the time, that the next production, whatever I choose, might turn out to be my last. So back then I was choosing subjects that I was passionate about, wanting to tell stories that I thought would make some useful contribution to society, thinking that each, would perhaps be my final epitaph. It sounds so weird to say that now, but that was why I chose subjects I thought were important and didn't try and write a play about 30 somethings in relationships (There was certainly enough of those being written by other eager playwrights, no one needed another one from me!)
I took a break after directing Climbie and shortly thereafter a trip to LA was on the cards and I reconnected with Actor/Director Keith Gordon, whom I had befriended at the London Film Festival in 1992 when I went to see the UK screening of his fantastic film 'A Midnight Clear'. I had already followed this man's career as an actor. He often played oddballs, underdogs or outcasts and did a truly remarkable performance as Arnie, in the film Christine, directed by John Carpenter. Beyond his acting abilities, Keith is an exceptionally talented filmmaker and in addition to directing several feature films, he's gone onto to direct episodes of Fargo, Better Call Saul and Homeland. Because I had seen all his films, Keith was my initial connection to Kent State. I recalled seeing his portrayal of a likeable, but nervous student, in a story that, in the naivete of my youth, I didn't truly grasp the realities of when I watched it. (I was only nine at the time, in my defence)
(The 1980s Kent State movie, starring among others, Keith Gordon as Jeff Miller, seen here on the far right.)
That film was ABC's made for television movie, Kent State. (I would later come to hear from fellow playwright Gregory Payne, of the complexities of getting even that movie made in 1980 about the controversial subject - Gregory would go on to write and direct the first theatrical play about those impacted by May 4th) When I first met Keith, Oliver Stone's epic drama JFK had only been out a couple of years. That film had a huge impact on me at the time and is still one of my favourite films of all time today and it would heavily influence the original screenplay of this project. Keith became a mentor to me for several years, patiently reading scripts I sent him and giving me invaluable feedback on my ideas. At the time, I wanted to make my own contribution towards a topic I felt very strongly about - the rights of our democratic freedoms. Having researched the subject, I noticed one aspect of the Kent State story which has received considerably less exposure than that of the shootings themselves. That was the story of the civil trial which followed five years later - the case of Krause v Rhodes, where the students who were wounded on the day and the bereaved parents of those who were killed, came together and took the Governor, James Rhodes, and the National Guard of Ohio to court for breach of Civil Rights. The lawyer from New York who had headed up the team, Joseph Kelner, had subsequently written a book about the case with James Munves, called the Kent State Cover Up, and a little further digging on 'the web' as we all called it back then, led me to Alan Canfora's excellent website on the subject which filled in most of the blanks. His was a detailed and invaluable resource which was crucial to the framework of my original screenplay. In 2002 Joseph Kelner was retired by this stage but his son Robert, who had also worked on the case, was still a trial lawyer in NYC, I contacted them, told them of my intentions for the screenplay, and after some convincing of the sincerity of my motivations, received both theirs and Alans blessing and set about the task of writing it. Back in the early 2000s, television drama was still not the way to go, and I figured the best way to tell the story was an epic JFK style courtroom drama epic feature film, with Joseph Kelner as the lead protagonist, with the parents and the plaintiffs of the case as the supporting players in the story. But how to give a voice to the four children in a piece set 5 years after the shootings? Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Bill Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer , it has to be said, that was something that eluded me. The latter of the four, Sandy, was an especially difficult character to pin down. In the end it was decided I would only show the events of the day in flashback during the courtroom testimony, saving the final act of the shootings for the closing speech in the film. Ultimately, I gave the last words in the screenplay to the four murdered students, thus giving them the final voice in the movie. It felt appropriate, yet somehow dreadfully inadequate. So it was, I handed over what Keith would call my 'magnus opus' of a script, the first draft of which was a whopping 300 pages, which I completed, I thought in the spring of 2003, but it may well have been later than this, as since my brain haemorrhage accident, dates and events of this era of my life are especially foggy. Keith helped me make some initial cuts. I then contacted both Robert Kelner and Alan Canfora and had them read it. Although both had loads of notes for me, they complimented me on how much I had got completely right on my first pass and were surprised at how quickly I had grasped the key elements of the story. I then immediately implemented all their suggested changes and amendments and began the longer process of rewriting.
(Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, Sandy Scheuer & Jeff Miller - The four students killed at Kent State University, on May 4th, 1970)
I won't go into huge detail about the events of May 4th here, because you have good old Uncle Google to assist you there, but between Alan's website, conversations with him, Robert Kelner, Dean Khaler (one of the survivors) and one with Elaine Holstein, and others, which I had completely forgotten about (more on my fun memory abilities in a moment!!!) I had several sources of key research. Although Kelner's book was helpful in identifying the key players of this side of the story, it lacked many key elements for me and I still had endless questions for Robert and Alan, as only very small sections of the courtroom testimony were included in the text. Alan was able to give me several personal anecdotes from the trial, including the time he confronted the Governor in the bathroom, which made the incidents and characters feel more real in my screenplay. Keith also gave me a longer list of cuts and suggested alternative approaches to some of the scenes. All extremely beneficial as the work began to take shape. After around nine drafts, I felt the script was in decent shape and it went out to several people. We even tried to get my all time favourite actor, Gene Hackman attached to play Joseph Kelner, whom Joe thought was the perfect choice to play him and told me so. Keith wrote to Oliver Stone on my behalf and recommended he read it and give me a meeting while I was in LA. Despite this extremely kind intro, I couldn't get past the first gate keeper at his company and all the other meetings I had in LA went nowhere. Ultimately the script sat on my old PC back home, and returned to the UK empty handed, despite giving the project my best shot, I just didn't have the connections to get it made, nor a decent agent to back me. I have to confess, I left LA, feeling somewhat disheartened.
(The Guard move out to disperse the student protest rally - May 4th Associated Press)
Having spent so much time writing the script, back in the UK, I decided to do a table read of it. I think this took place sometime in 2004 but it may have been 2005. The only reason I know this reading happened at all is because I found the original cast list for all those who took part in it and my subsequent notes on the changes and edits to the script in an old folder, from my old PC. My friend Rada actor Sam Stuart took on the Joe Kelner role, and it evidently, according to my notes, was extremely valuable to hear the script out loud. Graham Fletcher-Cooke and Jason Flemyng also took part. How I wish I had filmed it but all I have is the cast list and my notes sadly. I was looking for another stage production to do at the time and have very vague recollections about intentions of trying to recreate the court case as a stage play but events in my own life were about to scupper those plans. In the interim, between trying to get my script seen, I took on another play, I think this was the summer of 2004. One that was supposed to be fun and a break from the serious stuff I normally handled. But by all accounts, fun it was not and friends that I confided in at the time filled in the blanks for me with this story which now, I will confess appears absent from my memory. A huge abscess in my brain had occurred during rehearsals of the play, I was directing called The East End of Chicago. It was The Cotton Club meets Bugsy Malone, I can barely remember the production at all, but a few months after its completion, the cause of the constant headaches I had during the production became evident. I had abscess in my brain the size of a golf ball. It caused a fit, then a stroke and I collapsed at home on Boxing Day of that year. I was in intensive care for 6 weeks and hospital for over 3 months. It was March the following year by the time I got out and when I did, I was so weak I could barely walk up the street without getting dizzy.. Frankly, I was lucky to come out at all and when I did I had dreadful insomnia which lasted for years afterwards and is still a constant problem. One memory I do have of this time, was of coming out of my initial coma to find none other than actor Jason Flemyng sitting on the end of the bed with a bacon butty for me in hand saying 'Go on Lance, get this down you and you'll be all right son.' It did take a little more than that to recover but the fact that Jason, someone whom wasn't back then as close a friend as he is now, took the time to do that, meant a great deal to me. I can't tell you too much about that time in my life, nor the years just before it, nor the year or two after it, as my memory of his whole decade has huge portions missing. After my release I noticed immediately my ability to retain short term memories was appalling and my balance was terrible and I had some later, more minor episodes, which just left even more gaps. I could even no longer stay on my skateboard (Not the biggest loss to human endeavours there!) and if I wasn't great at thinking, before speaking, when I went into hospital, when I came out, I found I said the first thing that came into my head all the time. I had in many ways, been outspoken before, but now, I literally had no filter. It might sound amusing to say this, but it wasn't, and this is a consequence of this whole episode that I have rarely, if ever discussed. In fact, this might be the first time I have ever mentioned it. I tried to find ways to adapt to this and also to re-train my brain to have an off switch so to speak. Saying what instantly came into one's head, could be deeply upsetting sometimes, (as much to others, as to myself) and to do otherwise, I really had to strain my brain, to try and just be myself, whatever myself, now in fact was, and this was so tiring all the time. This skill did not come easy and I decided directing and me, were, for then at least, probably at an end. There were other factors, but they're not important in the scheme of this story. I didn't direct again until 2010, and then apart from one brief foray, not again for nearly another decade, but I digress. This is why nothing with, 13 Seconds in Kent State, happened back when I first wrote it.
(Keith Gordon & his wife Rachel Griffin, myself and actress Sherri Howard (from Scorpion King) in LA I think around 2004 but I am not sure exactly)
Fast forward to the year 2020 and the pandemic was upon us. In 2019, a truly challenging year for me, which I have written about in another blog, myself and my old friend Dickon, a drama teacher, formed The Outcasts. We would run a weekly drop-in drama class, very much in the mold of our old friends, Graham Fletcher-Cooke's class and I would look to write plays and sketches for the group, and we would see where it took us. It was flexible, super cheap for all involved, and I was doing something I loved, and I had a supportive best mate, who knew what I had been through, and if I needed to step back (or had to spend half an hour on the loo) he would understand. For me, it was as much about keeping my mental health on track, as anything, because 2019 was not a very kind year to me nor for those I loved. Little did I know, how much fun 2020 was going to be! About one month into the pandemic, we found a way to get our group back on line with Zoom, and through this medium we read scripts, lots of scripts, sometimes with as many as 25 actors. Due to the unrelenting pressure of growing debts and very real need to succeed, I wrote some 30 scripts in 2020, mostly completely new ones, but some, were rewrites of older screenplays or treatments, one of which was Persecution. This drama mini-series, became an online experiment for The Outcasts, to see if we could get a drama to be worthy of performance, working in an entirely new medium. Performing on Zoom, a relatively small space in front of a camera, is very limiting, but it can also be extremely useful at enhancing an actor's abilities for doing castings, especially self-tapes and those online, and just fine tuning one's skills. Movement and using the distance from camera is crucial. You can't act like you're in a table read, you must actually perform and it's a little skillset unto itself, which contravenes many of the normal rules you would apply when acting for camera on a set, or on a stage. We realised, it could also be a great way to perform and showcase our work. Persecution was a moderate success and more people saw it than would have seen a two week run of any play at a 50 seater theatre above a pub. There was, surely, something in this. We discussed what we might do next and one aspect of our previous production that worked very well was the court case scenes. I knew I had written something else, set in a court. It was only then, some 18 odd years later, that I recalled I had written the script about Kent State.
(Above - Rehearsing with The Outcasts, part of the cast on Episode 2 'Allison' in March)
Digging out the old script, the first thing was to break it down, and turn it into a mini-series. Doing it as a feature film online wouldn't work and nor would the original script. So, I did this mini-series version of the new script first, breaking the old one into 5 episodes and completely reshaping it. It was also important to have a more up to date version of it, in the event there was interest in producing this story, I would have a version of it ready to go. As I was now no longer restricted to the running time of a feature film, I was able to put back in some important scenes which had been cut from the original and was able to give all the families a much stronger voice this time around, but I knew this version of the script would still not work for a ZOOM performance. It still needed a sweeping change at its core to get it to flow and engage an online audience. Then it came to me - the answer was staring straight at me in my old picture files. A picture of the four dead in Ohio (As the song about them put it) - Allison, Jeff, Bill and Sandy - it was their voices who would guide us through the story. It was after all, their story and it was as a consequence of their deaths, that the court case had occurred in the first place. Now, in Persecution, we had these factual narrators guide us through what was still essentially a TV Series script. They would guide the audience from location to location and read out stage directions. But it was distracting. This time, I wanted to completely scrap that approach. The obvious choice for the narrators were Sandy, Jeff, Bill and Allison, so they became the narrators of the first four episodes (starting with Jeff Miller) guiding us, almost ethereally, as it were, from one scene to the next. The narrators voice for the final episode, I decided to give over to those who were injured, although the majority of that went to Alan Canfora. No one campaigned harder to have the truth of Kent State heard. It was a shame, in some ways that this idea did not come to me earlier in 2020, we could have, after all, probably put together this production in time for the 50th anniversary, but to be honest, we wouldn't have been ready then. We, as creatives, didn't know how to get the best out of ZOOM as a medium of performance until the summer of last year and by 2021, The Outcasts had grown from a troupe of some 30 or so semi-regulars with a hardcore group of about 10, to over 60 regulars and a hardcore of some 20 really strong actors. But not all of us were great with American accents, so there was work to do. In November, the mini-series script table read over, I began the rewrites, which were harder than I thought they would be, because I still didn't really have a feel for Bill, Allison, Jeff and Sandy. The first person I needed to speak to, was Alan Canfora. Alan responded immediately. I wasn't sure he would even remember me, but he did, quite clearly. He regretted he couldn't assist me directly, as he was now a Father and had a full plate but gave the project his blessing and wished me well with it. I didn't know it, but Alan was very ill at the time, and sadly, he passed away in late December of 2020. It was a real blow, and for a moment I wondered if we should cancel the whole thing. More than anything, perhaps purely selfishly, I really wanted Alan Canfora to see this piece. He had, back in the day, given me more assistance in shaping it than anyone else. Fortunately, many others, including Chic Canfora, Dean Khaler, Tom Grace, Howard Ruffner, Laura Davis and Gregory Payne all took time to talk to me, clear up little details and point me in the right direction, as did Audrey Scheuer and the relatives of Bill Schroeder including his nephew, David Tuttle. Fortunately, even with this new version of the story I was once again only concerned with the events of the day itself, and those of the trial in 1975, not anything that had happened since. We were not going to debate other theories or speculation, or rumours about May 4th. This story was all about showing the audience what had happened back in 1975 and giving them a sense of who these people were in that narrative. We needed a large cast, and as we knew from the outset this wasn't going to be either a funded or a for profit production at this stage, it was a question of convincing actors that it was a project worth their time. Many of the regular Outcasts immediately stepped forwards to take part but because the cast was male heavy, due to the characters we were depicting, not all of the Outcasts regulars could be involved or have huge roles. Another thing, is that at The Outcasts, which is open to all, regardless of it you attend our workshops or not, so we always have no bias with our castings. People audition and there is no favouritism and parts are cast based on how people do on the day, and to some degree their suitability for the role on a production of this nature. Some of our regulars, like Suzette Pluck, would instead, work tirelessly behind the scenes of this show, ensuring Dickon and myself wouldn't have a mental breakdown. Toby Cockrell and Anne Heasell made up the rest of the production team, while composer Julia Lima came on board to do an original score and Alex Tabrizi would do our opening titles. Working with large casts can be demanding, even if it's just online and we had people come from America, Europe, Australia and even Hawwai taking part in the early readings. We had to go further afield to find more people to fit certain roles and are most grateful to those newbies who came on board, that we did not know before, who are now much valued colleagues and friends. We began casting in January 2021 and rehearsing in February, keeping the commitment for all involved as flexible as possible, so the production would not interfere with other work opportunities for the actors. Now there's just two episodes left to go (written end of April 2021). And that is the story of how 13 Seconds in Kent State became an online mini-series to be performed live. Finally, as we are all doing this project gratis, I want to say here, unequivocally, that all creatives, not just actors, but writers, producers and directors too, should always be paid for their time, but we all know it doesn't and can't always work that way in this industry and staying pro-active is vital. Sometimes you have decide as individuals, or as a group, collectively, if there is a good reason for doing something for free, producing a work which will also double as a way of enhancing your own abilities. Acting is a muscle, using it and performing, is like going to the gym. The more you do it, the better. Just going to auditions isn't enough, you must find other ways to perform. Some take to poetry, make short films or skits, others write one man/woman shows, others form small theatre groups and do plays above pubs. There is no shame in this, as long as you're all in the same boat and everything is transparent and someone is not profiting off your time, while you earn nothing. Rather than do a showcase, we would rather tell something with an actual narrative that serves a greater purpose, beyond merely giving us all something to do, in times where one's mental health, is more important than ever. There is a camaraderie on projects such as these, which when it's there, can earn you friends for life. In this industry we all have to create our own opportunities and find ways of showcasing our skills. Dickon and I are extremely grateful to the extremely talented actors who have given up their time for this project and helped make it a reality. Without them, there would be nothing for you to see. That said, I think I can speak for everyone involved in 13 Seconds in Kent State, when I say that the core message of the piece attracted us all to doing a project which we felt is worth our time, and the commitment that we have given to the show. If it showcases the talents of those involved, then that's a happy coincidence, but it's not at the forefront of anyone's mind on this production. We're all doing this because we know this story is important, it should not be forgotten and the lives of those who were taken away on that fateful day in 1970, still stand for something very important. Democracy. Something we cherish and should never take for granted. Stand for something or fall for anything. - Lance S A Nielsen April 1st 2021