Rebecca Donnelly is the author of How to Stage a Catastrophe (Capstone Young Readers), a Winter/Spring 2017 Indies Introduce debut title for middle-grade readers and a Spring 2017 Kids’ Indie Next List pick.
Emily Hall, co-owner of Main Street Books in St. Charles, Missouri, served on the panel that selected Donnelly’s debut for the Indies Introduce program. How to Stage a Catastrophe, the story of Sid, Folly, and the Juicebox children’s theater in the Florida panhandle, is “a story near and dear to my heart,” said Hall.
“Theater kids rejoice! This book is for you. It follows the young patrons of a small town theater on the verge of closing and their efforts to save it... however crazy the scheme may be,” said Hall. “The plucky crew of young actors and crew members unite on a mission to keep the theater around, considering every possibility (even a crime!) and causing general and good-natured mayhem.”
Donnelly was born in England and has lived in California, Florida, and New Mexico. She holds master’s degrees in the humanities and library and information science. She currently runs a small, rural library in Upstate New York.
Here, Donnelly and Hall discuss How to Stage a Catastrophe.
Emily Hall: How to Stage a Catastrophe seems to have been written by an author with some experience in theater. How did your own theater experience contribute to this novel?
Rebecca Donnelly: I’m glad it seems that way! I’ve tried to be very honest about my limited theater experience in case people start pointing out any technical errors. I was part of an amateur community-based children’s theater in middle school, which is where the inspiration for the story comes from. I played a few roles in small productions of James and the Giant Peach (Spider) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Veruca Salt). When I came up with the idea for How to Stage a Catastrophe, I was drawing on the feeling of being a middle schooler in that environment, which is so full of excitement and possibility. You’re learning about yourself, and theater is a great way to do that because it gives you a chance to explore and observe character motivations.
Sid loves his little town and its little theater, and I wanted to balance his dreams for his future with his sheer enjoyment of what he’s doing now. I used some of my own direct experience (the inside of the Juicebox is based on the inside of the theater I remember) and some of my reflection as an adult (that, for me, that time was all about discovery — of yourself, your world, and your capabilities).
EH: How difficult was it to include all of the trappings of a proper script (stage directions, playbill entries, scenes, etc.) in your novel?
RD: That’s definitely something I thought and rethought. I loved the idea of using the classic three-act structure because I love the idea of seeing a story reflected in its structure. But when it came down to writing it, I knew I was going to have to deviate a little, because life doesn’t work exactly the way a three-act structure does. So you see Sid decide to reboot and start again from the beginning, with a brand-new Act One, once he really gets a handle on what the story is and how they’re going to save the theater. In the end, my editor, Eliza Leahy, suggested breaking the story into Parts 1 and 2, to differentiate between the original acts and the reboot.
I threw in the cast list, the playbill, etc., because they’re just so much fun, and the designer, Brann Garvey, did a great job making something pretty out of my simple Word-based templates. One of my favorite parts is the brief melodrama with Beatrice and her father. I love to throw things like that into a story because I always loved anything that deviated from or played around with a traditional narrative structure when I was a kid.
EH: The kids in the novel — Sidney, Folly, and the others who perform at the Juicebox Theater — are all feisty and wonderful characters. Did any real-life kids inspire these characters?
RD: Not really. I can’t point to any particular kid I remember from those days, or that I know now, and say that I based any of the characters on them. I think in a way some of them are types, and they’re meant to be — May is the mean big sister, Beatrice is the snooty drama queen. But they have, I hope, something that moves them out of that stereotype to make them fuller characters. Part of that is that Sid’s understanding of them changes and he’s able to see them a little differently at the end.
Sid and Folly are an interesting pair to me. I wanted to set up two friends who are, for the most part, right in sync with each other. We have so many stories where friends argue and fall out (as in my current project) and I wanted to do the opposite: show two friends who might be reading from different scripts, so to speak, but who have the same end in mind.
EH: Sid and Folly are able to save the Juicebox Theater in the end. Do you think kids in the real world have the power to affect such change?
RD: I think they do. Maybe not in the same way, because the story relies on a lot of coincidence and perfect timing (another one of my little jokes to myself, using a theatrical trope to tell a theater story), but we see kids changing the world every day. Probably one of the most visible examples right now is Marley Dias, whose #1000blackgirlbooks campaign brought her national attention and a book deal so she can share her activism with other kids. Not every kid can work on that level, but I see kids in my area raising money for things they believe in, sharing their art, and trying to figure out how they can positively affect the world around them. They might not do it entirely on their own — several adults have something to contribute to the story of saving the Juicebox Theater, for example — but it’s part of our job as adults to model and scaffold that sense of having the power to change things for our kids.
EH: As a debut novelist, how did you react when you saw How to Stage a Catastrophe in print for the first time?
RD: I would love to say that I screamed or cried or something like that, but the truth is I opened the box, I looked inside, and then I closed it and sat quietly for a while, sort of pretending it wasn’t there. Because once your book is out there, it’s out there. You’ve moved outside your own head. And that’s a little terrifying.
How to Stage a Catastrophe by Rebecca Donnelly (Capstone Young Readers, Hardcover, 9781623708078). Publication Date: April 1, 2017.
Find out more about the author at rebeccadonnellywrites.com.
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