Off the beaten path of the Azalea Festival is ... a play about the Azalea Festival: The Azalea Festival Queen is a comedy written by Joel Perry. It's onstage at TheatreNow on 10th & Dock Streets through April 28.
Joel has a long history as a comedic author-and he's originally from Wilmington (so he knows about the Azalea Festival). He wrote "The Azalea Festival Queen" as a story in his book, That's Why They're in Cages, People! and adapted it for this stage production.
Listen to Joel above, and see our extended interview below.
Joel: I am Joel Perry. I am the author of the play that is now at TheaterNOW. It's called The Azalea Festival Queen by Joel Perry. That's me.
Gina: When did it open?
Joel: It opened last week.
Gina: So your history is in comedy.
Joel: Right. I worked at a company where we made comedy, bits in comedy, songs, pieces like that for radio DJs across the US and Canada. I did that for 24 years. It was a fabulous job. I basically got paid to be silly for a living joy.
Gina: And I'm assuming that this Azalea Festival Queen is a comedy.
Joel: It's a comedy. It's a ridiculous, over the top comedy. It's based on a short story that I wrote that was published in my second book, That's Why They're in Cages, People, that had to do with my birthplace of Wilmington, North Carolina, and it was all around the Azalea Festival. That was several years ago, I was still living in Los Angeles. Now that I'm here, I thought this would be a good show to put up or a good story to create a show from. So that's what I did. I sat down and I looked at several of the shows at TheaterNOW and I saw what really worked well in there. They like a first act that's about 40 minutes long, then they have their dinner and then the second act is about 20 minutes long, then they have dessert and then they want to wrap it up in about 15 minutes. I can do that. I gave them that and Zach Hanner who runs TheatreNOW, looked at it and went, “OK, we got to do this and we got to do it during the Azalea Festival,” which was my cunning plan. So it's up now and during the Azalea Festival, so who could ask for anything more?
Gina: It's Friday and Saturday nights?
Joel: Friday and Saturday nights from now through April 28th.
Gina: You can go see it without actually battling any Azalea Festival traffic.
Joel: True. It's away from the mobs.
Gina: It's on 10th street. 10th and Dock.
Joel: Just off Market.
Gina: How perfect is that? OK, now let's hear about the show.
Joel: It's about the Jonathan family. They owned a lot of land outside of Burgaw, but they were looked down upon by their family because they were just little, lousy dirt farmers. Then they sell their property to some real estate investors. Suddenly they're rich, so they come to the glittering metropolis of Wilmington, North Carolina, where they are rabid to get into society. They come up with the idea that if they can purchase the title of Azalea Queen for their daughter that will gain them entrée into all that Wilmington has to offer; all the elite people, all the elite homes. It does not go well.
Gina: I bet it does not go well, but there's a happy ending?
Joel: Oh yes, of course there's a happy ending. It's a comedy for goodness sake. What I love about it is when we do get to the happy ending, frequently people will applaud in the middle of it. That's great. My favorite, favorite part is at the end when the actors are coming out for their bows and the lead actress who is playing the lead in it, Kathy Rossi, comes out, people cheer. They flat out cheer. That's just awesome to me.
Gina: What is your favorite part of the story?
Joel: Golly, the favorite part of the story? I'm going to settle on something that might be a little odd, but it still is an interesting side note to the show and creative process and all of that. I was writing one character, Grandma, for someone that I kind of know here, Katie Fitzgibbon, and the fun thing is Katie Fitzgibbon's mother, Anne Fitzgibbon, when she was a professor at UNCW, taught me playwriting. So I've got my playwright's daughter in the show.
Gina: That is so cool.
Joel: It is very cool. I mean, it may not be comedic, but it's darn cool. And she's comedic, I'll tell you that.
Gina: That happened when you were adapting the story into the play? Tell me about that adaptation process and what you may have lost and what you may have gained.
Joel: Well, there's some things I don't want to tell you about. I want to keep it a secret for you. It's a surprise. I like surprises. I think that if you're really smart, you'll look at the show, you'll see the direction it's going in and you might be able to figure out what's going to happen. But I wanted to make it as unpredictable along that way as possible. So that was what was a lot of fun too. I basically just sat down with the story and looked at it and went, how do these people talk? Because the story is more about this person did something and then they did something else. But I had to interpret it as how would they do that speaking? You have to speak to this person to get that person to do something. They have to seek out and find the person who runs the Azalea Festival here so that they can find out how much it's going to cost them to make their daughter Azalea Queen. And then how would they speak about that? And that was fun coming up with those characters.
Gina: Because you couldn't just use description like in the story.
Joel: Right. You know, “He deftly moved to the table.” No, cross right, now say something funny.
Gina: There's something frightening to me when you take a work and then you get other people to do it.
Joel: It's terrifying.
Gina: Were you scared about it?
Gina: How do you feel now?
Joel: I'm very, very pleased. I am so pleased that these people have given me a play. My play. My vision. Like, oh my God, how did this happen? It's amazing. It's wonderful. My husband is the director, which I did not see coming.
Joel: Zach asked him if he would. And he said, “OK, sure.” I asked him why would you want to do that? I'm glad, but why? And he replied that after being together for so many years- it'll be 38 years in August- he said, “I know your humor.” We have performed together so we know how that works, the timing and that sort of thing. He felt like he could bring it out in the people. And he did. It's interesting too, along the way, what got cut, what got trimmed, and what got combined. Since both of us have been in theater enough, we know that's gonna happen and we're not worried about it. He would just tell me about it so I wouldn't be surprised and go, “Where's that scene?”
Gina: And you're totally cool with it?
Gina: You guys are still on the way to 40 years ago?
Gina: OK. That's the most important thing.
Joel: No, the most important thing is selling tickets and getting people out there. Come on, let's be real.
Gina: Is there a dinner?
Joel: Oh there is totally a dinner. Chef Denise Gordon also gets good reviews for her delicious dinners. I had the dinner, it was a yummy. There's a line in the play where they're talking about dinner and Grandma is asked what she thought about dinner and Grandma says, “I think that chicken did not die happy.” Well, these chickens that are being served by Denise are very happily dead. They died very happy.
Gina: That's good to know. Tell me about the rest of the cast.
Joel: Rich Deike plays the doofus husband, Jim Jonathan. I told you already about Kathy Cagney Rossi, who plays Jenny Jonathan, the wife. Nicholas Taylor is the son, one of the twins. The other twin is Heather Costello. Kitty Fitzgibbon is mom, Grandma. Elizabeth Michaels is Aunt Tilly. Skip Maloney has a few different parts in there, including the man who runs the Azalea Festival and Jenny's lunk headed brother Wilbur. Yeah, that's everybody.
Gina: Excellent. Well, this sounds like a lot of fun. Is it inappropriate for children?
Joel: It could be here and there. Yeah. Um, I wasn't really aware that it was pushing the envelope very much. There's a bit where one of the characters is wearing a hat from the University of South Carolina and it only has one word on it. It begins with a C. But hey, you know what, it was on the hat. We purchased it from the school. It's not like we made it up. We went to the mall and said, “Do something dirty with the hat.” The school did that for us. So yeah, that's in there.
Gina: Okay, alright. Any cuss words?
Joel: Yes, there's an "s" cuss word, which, looking at it now in subsequent additions of the script, I'm going to change it to "crap" instead of the other word because I just don't think he'd say that word in the house. He has been driven to say that word and he has a right to say that word. And as it happens, it also spurs the next piece of action in the play, which I won't tell you about, but it spurs the next piece of action. So it has a reason and a purpose for being there. It's not just said for upsetting people effect. Also, it's dinner theater.
Gina: Right? Leave the kids at home. Don't bring them.
Joel: We talk about escape a lot in the show. In fact, the opening monologue talks about escape; how she escaped, how you wanted to escape, how her family thought she was going to escape and she just turns it to the audience to say yes, you want to escape because at some point one of you turned to the other and said, “Lord, get me out of this house,” and you escaped to a place where you did not have to cook and there's alcohol. So leave those kids at home. God love them. Leave them at home until they're ready to buy an adult ticket.
Gina: What is the deep meaning of Azalea Festival Queen?
Joel: Honestly, the deep meaning is come laugh. Seriously. That's all it's about. Have a good time. Come forget your fears, your problems, what's going on in your life. Like the monologue says, just get me out of this place and come here to a place where you can laugh. You can forget your troubles. Come on, get happy. Hey, that's a good lyric. Hey, we got something here.
Gina: When does it end?
Joel: Around 9:00.
Gina: I mean, when does it end in days?
Joel: On the 28th. April 28th.
At a time when we're so assaulted by news. What is news? Isn't news? What is going on? What are we on the verge of? It's a very trying time and I happen to believe that if you can make someone laugh, if you can make someone smile, it takes them out of the anxiety of life for just a moment. And it's like being able to take a deep breath so that you can start again and go, OK, maybe it's not so horrible and I can get through another day. I happen to believe in the healing properties of comedy. When I was writing for radio, doing the comedy for radio, one of my coworkers always used to say, “I'm Robert Morgan Fisher. I write comedy and save lives.” I used to think that was a joke, but I've decided to take that on because this is what I believe. If you can make someone smile, that is quantum. It radiates outward. It changes that person's demeanor and they will go out and be a better person and surprise the next person that they meet because they were nicer and so that person is inspired to be nicer and it goes on and it goes on. Maybe that's Pollyanna, but I believe that.
Transcription Assistance by Production Assistant, Lindsay Wright