Saluting a Backyard Theatrical Impresario In Lincoln, Nebraska

July 26th, 2015 § 7 comments

Shrek in the Journal StarSundays tend to be slow days for theatre news, if you get most of your theatre news online. By the time I sit down to trawl through “the Sunday papers” for theatre stories to share, primarily through my Twitter account, I’ve seen most of what’s on offer already. The New York Times Arts stories start filtering out through Twitter and Facebook as early as Wednesday, the Sunday column of Chris Jones at The Chicago Tribune is usually available by Friday afternoon, and so on.

I look at my theatre news curation on Sundays as perfunctory (just as Saturdays tend to be particularly busy), knowing I’m unlikely to find much, which is why a story in the Lincoln, Nebraska Journal Star managed to catch my eye. It’s not, so far as I can tell, in the paper’s arts or entertainment section, but in local news, the sort of charming slice of life that columnists look for to illuminate their communities. However reporter Conor Dunn found out about impresario Dylan Lawrence’s production of Shrek: The Musical in a neighbor’s backyard, I’m awfully glad it came to the paper’s attention, and that I stumbled upon it. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a taste:

Now 13, Dylan pulled off his first major production this weekend — “Shrek: The Musical” — at The Backyard Theatre in southeast Lincoln, a venue literally carved out of a family’s backyard and completely run by kids.

This isn’t the first time Dylan has directed a play, however. It’s just in a new location. Last summer, he and 10 of his friends performed “The Wizard of Oz” in his Lincoln backyard. Dylan said the cast put the show together in just nine days and about 70 people attended.

*   *   *

While most theatrical productions have a set and a stage crew, Dylan took most of the roles on himself, alongside directing and performing as Lord Farquaad in the show.

He’s sewn the costumes, designed the props, rented a sound system and also created light cues using a software program on his laptop. He even created The Backyard Theatre’s website.

David Lindsay Abaire Facebook post re ShrekI have no doubt that there are other Dylan Lawrences out there, so I like to look at this story not as a wholly unique incident, but rather as emblematic of the grassroots love of theatre that inspires kids, and that in turn can inspire even those of us working at it professionally. I’m glad it’s finding resonance online ­– my post has been “liked” on Facebook 72 times in less than two hours and shared 37 times, including by David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the show’s book and lyrics. I suspect the number will climb much higher, because I believe that many more people will connect to it in the same way that I did.

There was one comment posted to me on Twitter, where I also shared the Journal Star story, saying “Hope he has the rights.” While I am adamant that authors should be compensated for their work, I wonder whether this ad hoc production by children 14 and under, with no institutional backing or adult leadership, reaches the level at which a license is required, and I intend to find out. However, if it turns out that a license should be paid, I don’t want my decision to share a local story that might have otherwise gone unnoticed to be visited upon Dylan and his company; consequently, I’ll pay for any rights required myself, to help Dylan practice what I preach, because it’s a small price to pay for encouraging the love of theatre and for a tale that reminds so many of us why we got into this crazy and thrilling business in the first place.

I performed on stage for the very first time as Charlie Brown at my day camp’s condensation of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown into about 20 minutes. I’m willing to bet it was unauthorized and unlicensed, and I don’t say that to encourage scofflaws, but merely as a fact. While it sounds like The Backyard Players of Lincoln, Nebraska are considerably more sophisticated than the rudimentary theatrics at Camp Jolly circa 1969, I feel a kinship to Dylan, even though he is obviously significantly more enterprising than I was. So I urge you to read his story and, perhaps, remember that very first time you made a stage in your backyard or your basement, or sang a show tune in elementary school before you’d even seen a play. Because we all started somewhere, and we need to always celebrate those taking their first theatrical steps whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Update, July 27, 7 a.m.: 18 hours after I first shared the Journal Star story via Facebook, my posting has been liked 107 times and shared 81 times. I have no way of knowing how it spread beyond there, but the original story on the Journal Star website has been “Facebook recommended” over 2700 times. We are that kid.


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  • Megan Smith

    He sure did have the rights! Dylan is very dedicated to doing things the way they’re supposed to be done, and wouldn’t dream of performing a full length show without the rights. He’s an absolutely amazing young man. So proud to have worked with him onstage, and to count him among my friends. I might miss living and acting in New York City, but things like this make me love Lincoln even more. Also, best parents (and neighbors) every! Thank you for shining light on such a great story. 🙂

    • I’m absolutely thrilled to read that and thoroughly impressed by Dylan’s sophistication. Thanks for sharing that information, because his story is really spreading far and wide.

      • Jim Bob Jones

        Do you have any update on your contact with MTI?

        • Per the earlier comment, it sounds like Dylan did everything correctly. But I had already e-mailed MTI earlier today and my contact there is out of the office until tomorrow.

          • Jim Bob Jones

            Still curious. Any report from MTI? Did the young man get the rights?

  • JasonW

    I can’t begin to tell you how amazing this group of kids were to have in our home and to have had the pleasure of watching perform this play. They were all a truly talented group.

    What saddens me is that this was a group of children trying to have fun and to do what they are truely passionate about and are now being attacked on who had rights to a play.

    I don’t know a lot about theatre or about rights to a play, but what I do know is that these are kids doing amazing things and had an amazing play for some very thankful people. How are you suppose to keep the arts alive if you stymie the children who love them? If anybody is worried about the rights to the play or needing compensation for some kids working their tails off 6-8 hours a day for 4 weeks to do what they love, then along with Howard, we will be happy to pay what needs to be paid.

    Let kids be kids and the arts live on!

    • Jim Bob Jones

      I don’t know of any attacks, sir, but certainly if Mr. Lawrence didn’t get the proper license to produce this musical, some education is in order. I’m not at all wishing bad things for these kids or the adults that helped them, but saying, “How are you suppose to keep the arts alive if you stymie the children who love them?” could just as easily be applied to kids spray-painting graffiti.

      I’m not saying that this is the case with these children in particular and I love their passion for musical theatre, but we live in a society that doesn’t know about or respect intellectual property. We might see the FBI warnings at the beginning of a DVD or read the copyright warning on iTunes, but people copy those items innocently thinking no crime is committed. People work hard to make art and they deserve to make a living without having their property stolen.

      If you, sir, ran a landscaping business and I stole your lawnmower, you and everyone else would have no problem understanding that it is wrong. Just because the property isn’t concrete, doesn’t make it less wrong.

      I strongly suspect that if they didn’t get the license to produce it, it was simply the honest mistake of a 14-year-old and parents that truly didn’t understand the protocol for licensing a show. This would be a great opportunity to teach him and those involved about the proper procedures one needs to take in order to produce a musical like this. It seems likely that some of these kids might have a future in the arts and they are stealing from their own futures if they produce plays without proper permission.

      I truly hope nothing punitive comes of this and it can be used as a learning experience for all involved. Kids out there who want to do this in the future should write their own shows so there isn’t any question about it and, by doing so, would they get the added bonus of seeing their creations come to life.

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