Zettelmaier's 'Shoes' walks away with an award

By James Sanford

Milan playwright wins his second Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award

For playwright Joseph Zettelmaier, it’s deja vu all over

Two years ago, Zettelmaier won the Edgerton Foundation New American Play
Award for his comedy “It Came From Mars,” which was subsequently produced at
Ann Arbor’s Performance Network and Williamston Theatre. This week, Zettelmaier
learned he has won a second Edgerton Foundation award for “Dead Man’s Shoes,” a
black comedy set in the Old West.

“Shoes” will be produced next season by — brace yourself —
Williamston Theatre and Performance Network.

In a phone interview from his office in Ann Arbor,
Zettelmaier said he wrote “Shoes” earlier this year. “Sometimes it takes a
while and sometimes the story comes really quickly,” he said. “This is one
where it took about six weeks to write a first draft.”

Set in 1833, “Shoes” chronicles the adventures of prison
escapee Injun Bill Picote and his alcoholic companion, the lowdown Froggy, as
they undertake a mission of vengeance. Zettelmaier calls it “a much darker
comedy” than “It Came From Mars” or his upcoming Williamston show “And the
Creek Don’t Rise,” which opens next month. “But I would still definitely call
(‘Shoes’) a comedy,” he added. “Like any good Western, it’s about revenge — and
it gets down and dirty.”

“Shoes” has its world premiere engagement at Williamston in
January and February before moving to Performance Network for five weeks of
performances in March and April.

The 36-year-old Zettelmaier, a Milan resident who has been a playwright for
13 years, said he was naturally drawn to the theme of outlaws and the Wild
West. “I’m a big, big fan of American history, especially the 1700s and 1800s,”
he said. “I’m really fascinated by that period. I never want to be writing the
same play twice, and I’d never written a Western.”

Zettelmaier’s interest in being a writer began when I was an
apprentice at the Purple Rose Theatre in the late 1990s, after graduating from
Shorter College, a small arts college in Rome, Ga.

“We did what we called a ‘dark night,’ which is when all the
apprentices get together and produce their own show,” he said. “I wrote
something for the dark night and I just kind of fell in love with it. But the
biggest thing was that (Purple Rose founder) Jeff Daniels came up to me
afterward and said, ‘Give me 100 pages.’”

That’s what’s known as motivation.

“Then, literally a month after I said, ‘This is what I want
to do,’ we started working on new play by Lanford Wilson (“Book of Days,” which
Purple Rose premiered in 1998), so he was around all the time, and he provided
me with wonderful pieces of advice and direction.”

In the years since, Zettelmaier has written “All Childish
Things,” “Language Lessons,” “The Stillness Between Breaths,” “Night Blooming”
and “Dr. Seward’s Dracula,” among other works.

Next week, Zettelmaier begins rehearsals at Williamston for
“Creek,” a three-character comedy about a Michigan couple’s uneasy adjustment
to life in a small Georgia town. The script was performed as a staged reading
at the 2010 Renegade Theatre Festival.

“It’s definitely my love letter to my time in the South,”
Zettelmaier said. “I loved it down there. It’s a massive culture shock, but
once I adapted, I completely fell in love with the South. I think it’s easy for
people who’ve never been there to say it’s all rednecks and bigots — but that’s
definitely not the case.”

“And the Creek Don’t Rise”

July 7-Aug. 14

“Dead Man’s Shoes”

Jan. 26-Feb. 26

Williamston Theatre

March 8-April 8

Performance Network, Ann Arbor