The Writers Group at Pacific Resident Theatre

By Elspeth A. Weingarten
It all started last winter, when Pacific Resident Theatre’s Writers Group held its New Work Series and company member Keith Stevenson brought the theatre a smash hit like it’s never seen before.

The series was created to give writers a goal for finishing their full-length projects and to give them an opportunity to put their work in front of an audience – both for the sake of creating a deadline and also to gather feedback on developing work.

Writers signed up to submit projects they had been working on – for years, in some cases. But when it came around to 14-year member, Keith Stevenson, he told them, “Yeah, I’ll whip something up.” At that point he had only a title and a concept – which he had carried with him for about 10 years prior.

Stevenson spent the next two and half weeks hunkered down in the back room of bars and camping out in a bare apartment, writing the play that was to become an unparalleled hit at Pacific Resident Theatre.

OUT THERE ON FRIED MEAT RIDGE RD. opened at PRT’s Co-Op space on March 29, 2012. It was slated for a three-week run, but it finally closed on October 6 – after six months, many returning audience members and an Ovation Award nomination for “Best Playwriting for an Original Play.”

During that time, the play developed an almost cult-like status among audience members who came back to see the show again and again – sometimes as much as five, six – even 12 times, or more.

“You’re guaranteed to feel better when you leave the theatre than you did when you came in – and there’s not a lot of things you can say that about,” said Fried Meat super-fan Ryan Smith, who has seen the show over 50 times.

“People loved the play because it was so funny; they were shocked and wonderfully surprised because it was so funny. But the reason they came back again – and the reason it stayed with people – was the way it made them feel,” said Fried Meat director Guillermo Cienfuegos.

It was clear from the first reading that this was something special. “[People] instantly started talking about how sweet the play was – what a heart it had, how it had this undercurrent of brotherly love and caring for each other,” Cienfuegos said. “Viewers recognized immediately the spiritual core at the center of all the laughter.”

Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Rd. is the story of a man who, upon answering an ad for a roommate, finds himself living with a hillbilly who purports to be the son of Christ. It’s an hour-long tour de force with non-stop jokes, a lot of coarse humor and a surprisingly rare and remarkable heart of kindness at its core – which is what keeps the audiences coming back.

“I loved so many things about this play. It’s sort of a perfect experience,” said company member Joan Chodorow, who has seen the show 13 times. “I just think the play’s amazing. It’s completely original. You think you think you know where it’s going to go, but then it takes all these unexpected turns and you come out of it feeling so good, feeling uplifted – it’s a profound play, but it’s truly hilarious. We’re all laughing from start to finish. Each time I see it, it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time.”

“I was incredibly humbled by the audience reaction and the fact that so many people returned time and again,” said Stevenson. “It was six of the happiest months of my life. I was thrilled to be working with such incredibly skilled actors who were so enthusiastic to be a part of it and who were so funny – surprisingly funny, actually – and the way that people just reacted to the story and to the characters… I was really taken aback by this wildfire of good feeling that surrounded the play.”

Stevenson said that he had been thinking for a long time of writing a character for himself based on the idea of a person who hadn’t lived up to his potential. He took the idea to the extreme and came up with the concept of someone who had descended from the DNA of Christ. But the character that emerged ended up surpassing that concept to became a figure very much rooted in real life – but one who was also the embodiment of love and kindness.

“It’s funny because people would talk to me afterwards and be slightly disappointed at talking to Keith, and not getting to meet JD,” he said. Stevenson had had a run of playing hard-to-like characters over the past several years and it was a change to find himself playing one with whom audience members completely – and consistently – fell in love.

“The audience wanted to hang out with JD and spend time with JD, because they felt good around him. In a way, JD was doing for the audience what he was doing for Mitchell and Marlene,” Cienfuegos said of the two “lost souls” of the play, whom JD sets on the right path.

“JD is just an amazing character,” said Chodorow. “He’s always weighing things out to try to make everything OK for everybody and he has no ego about anything. He’s all goodness, but it’s in this edgy play.”

Written on such a tight deadline, the actors had not even read the play until they came in the morning of the reading to begin rehearsal. But – unlike most projects that need multiple readings and revisions – Stevenson’s play was complete.

Cienfuegos said “it was just a matter of bringing everything out and putting it on its feet. From that first reading, to when we opened it at the Co-Op in March, the play remained virtually unchanged.”“Even though it had been written in two and a half weeks, it was obviously a finished work,” said PRT Artistic Director Marilyn Fox. ”The characters, the story the theme – it was a finished piece.”

And there’s more to come. This December, Pacific Resident Theatre will open the doors to more West Virginia mayhem in Stevenson’s A FRIED MEAT CHRISTMAS.  This holiday sequel will inhabit the 703 space for a two-week limited run, which includes double-headers with the Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Rd. on Saturdays and Sundays.

“I’m very excited for A Fried Meat Christmas,” Stevenson said. “I’ve always wanted to do a Christmas play and to tell a story that embodies the spirit of Christmas. And to do it with these characters that I’ve lived with for all this time now is very special indeed.”

PRT is happy to have him back.