Every fall, the University of Houston School of Theatre & Dance selects the best student-written play to produce on stage. This year, a dark comedy about money, success, failure and waffles rose to the top. “Winners,” written by Will Inman (B.F.A. Playwriting ’18) and handpicked by SoTD Director Rob Shimko, takes place in a Waffle House amidst the chaos that engulfs Joseph, one of the diner’s regulars, after he wins the lottery and — panicked — tries to give it all away.
The highly anticipated show, which ran from November 17 – 19, premiered to a sold out house. In fact, every performance sold out — even one added last minute due to overwhelming demand.
Learn more about Inman’s creative process, his inspiration and what it felt like to see the characters spring to life in our Q&A below.
How did you prepare for the show? What was an average day for you leading up to the premiere?
This was a semester-long project. There were a couple of months before rehearsals started, during which we had occasional table readings so that I could crank out a few drafts before we started. During the first week of rehearsal, Theresa Rebeck, one of our playwriting professors who comes in every semester, guest directed. She went through the show with the actors, basically taking a machete to the script and fixing a lot of flow issues. That was exhausting, but exhilarating. Once that was over, I had the weekend to finish the production draft of the script. After that, I mostly came to rehearsals, listened and fiddled with little things in the text. It was lovely to just sit and enjoy it after working on it so hard for so long.
Is “Winners” the first play of yours that has been produced?
I've actually had a number of works produced in my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I discovered playwriting early, and it's such a niche thing that I had to create opportunities for myself. We created a family tradition of self-producing theatre in the summer. I could cast my family and friends and I had a lot of support from the community.
In Tulsa, I did “Bad Days” and “Mir[and]a” at Edison High School, “Estate Sale” at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center and "The Lesbian Exhibit" at the Nightingale Theatre. I've also had my play "Coming Out" produced as part of UH's 10-Minute Play Festival.
What was it like seeing your work come to life on stage?
I've seen it happen so many times, but it always blows me away. I create these people in my head, and then I have to give them to actors and hope they're treated with as much thought and consideration as they deserve. The character is like a flat set of clothes; the actor has to step into them to give them shape and dimension. And I've never had a better cast than with “Winners.” Truly, everyone was perfectly suited to their character, they all "got it" right off the bat and their specific comedic styles meshed in a way that was harmonious in every sense of the word. My director [Rob Shimko] had an excellent sense for the flow of the piece, oftentimes verbalizing things that were only abstract thoughts in my head. I was like, "Yes, that! Do that!" I can never thank my team enough. I feel truly privileged and humbled to have been able to work with a group of such brilliant artists.
How does a play change once it’s performed before an audience? Does it take on a new life or continue to evolve?
A play is never finished. I can fiddle with something I've written forever, if nobody stops me. So it can keep changing indefinitely, which is the best part about it. Writing a play has two distinct phases: the actual writing of the thing and then the first week or two of rehearsals. That second part is where the cast comes in, and they give you their take on the characters. They have insights, questions and interesting spins on things you'd never think of, because they're focusing on the micro level, not the macro. So you tailor the production to the cast you have, and it is no longer a script; it's a play.
What was most challenging about this experience?
The hardest thing was balance. It's truly an ensemble show — I had seven characters — so it was difficult to ensure that everyone was grounded and taken care of 100 percent of the time. This was especially true of Brenda, the senile character. If the show was a symphony, Brenda would be a jazz trumpet; she's loud and unavoidable, and when she starts going, everything else has to stop and adjust to what she's doing. I fixed that problem by assigning a different character for each draft, viewing the story from their set of eyes. I think it turned out really well balanced and satisfying, like a good, hot meal.
What was most gratifying?
The first audience. A play, to me, is equal parts text, actors, tech and audience. The first three things usually come together quickly, but the audience comes in at the very end. It can be nerve-wracking, especially for a comedy, to not have butts in seats until opening. You hear the jokes so many times, you start wondering, "Does this still work? Is any of this funny?" The audience’s energy is palpable, and I was very happy to realize that every audience provided a different emotional reaction, which changed the energy of the show. Sometimes it was more drama than comedy, sometimes it had a darker tone, sometimes more like a sitcom. The emotional feedback loop an audience provides is what elevates theatre, for me. It’s what makes it special. It's why we do it.