Spotlight on Pete Bakely

interview

{Header photo Pete & Lisa Bakely in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Nairba Sirrah}

Note: this article will be published in the December 2010 issue of KC Stage Magazine.

Peter Bakely’s theatrical career is, in his own words, “a long, circuitous path.” He grew up in Kansas City, Kan., having moved to Hampton, N.J. in the second grade, and outside of a year in high school and a year after college has stayed in the Kansas City area his whole life.

However, theatre is a thread that connects his life from a student in Kansas City, Kan., to a playwright studying at UMKC for a master’s degree in playwriting with a play in the Barn Players’ 3rd annual 6 x 10 Ten Minute Play Festival (the first weekend of December).

It was in high school that Bakely got bitten by the theatre bug. While his brothers and sisters had performed before, his first role was a sailor in H.M.S. Pinafore in 7th grade.

“I had three major roles, and I was very happy,” Bakely says. “This was in 9th grade, I started in 7th grade – it was a 7 – 12. So I was getting to act with the seniors when I was in 7th grade, which was really cool. But in 9th grade, I started getting leads again.”

But it was his 10th grade year, when his father took a sabbatical and the family lived a year on Cape Cod, that really started him on the path to having theatre be more than just something to do.

“I went to a huge high school: 6,000 students,” Bakely says. “Very, very different from what I came from. And the drama program wasn’t very good, but it’s what I did. And I got there, they loved me right away. But the director really didn’t do anything.

“And working with him, I realized that I could direct myself and that was a huge revelation to me,” he continues. “I really created my whole role, and that was You Can’t Take it With You – I played Mr. DePinna, and I came up with a whole set of character things that worked out incredibly well. I realized then as an actor that it wasn’t listening to the director and doing what he said. And to this day, directors for the most tend to leave me alone. It’s hard to explain how big that was, but that was the first time that I went from being a vessel to a creative force on my own.”

He took that lesson back to his high school teacher here – James Shepherd – and was afraid at first that he’d get in trouble for making up his own bits. “No,” he says with a smile. “He saw me making up my own bits and he was very happy with that, because he knew the creative spark, too.”

KC Stage’s December 2010 cover. Photo by Charlie Welborn.

Bakely attended Park College (now Park University) in the late ’70s, working with Jim Cox, which gave him a chance to work with original scripts. “The school put together an original script production program,” he says, “and I got to work with some good people, because Jim really pushed to get them in.” This included Charles Gordone, the first black man to win a Pulitzer Prize for playwriting, and George Gurley.

After three years, Bakely left Park, went to San Diego for a year, then returned to attend UMKC briefly, which gave him a chance to work at Missouri Rep. “I got steadily better and better parts while I was there as a student,” he says. “I was non-Equity, I acted through the ’80s around Kansas City doing a lot of productions. I would just get into anything I possibly could: professional, non-professional.”

During this time, he continues, “I met a group of strange individuals, including Mike Taylor, who was putting together a radio show {Greenwich Meantime}, where he had written scripts and it was just one of these things that came out of nowhere. I joined up with him, after doing that and doing his scripts for a couple of months, I started writing scripts for it and the two of us started trading off scripts. We all wrote, but Mike and I did much of it, plus production, plus acting in them every week. And it really gave me a taste for writing material for myself. It was a half hour scripted radio show that we put on once a week. We had a lot of publicity at the time, and we got put on a small network – I think we were on five Pacifica stations at that point.”

“It was a really good opportunity and it fell apart, as these things do, but ever since that time, I have always wanted to go back to actually making the theatre, writing it, producing it, putting it all together with a group of people.”

A combination of burning out and getting married in 1984 and having a child in 1986 caused Bakely to give up theatre in the early ’90s. He went back to Park College from 1990 – 1992, receiving a degree in Communications: Radio and Television, and got a job working for Sony Electronics six months after graduating.

“At the same time, quitting theatre didn’t take,” Bakely says with a laugh. “And I ran into marsha morgan, and I got to realize how good and calm a director she was, and what a great artistic non-competitive environment Park was during that time.”

He proceeded to do a show every couple of years at Park throughout the 90s (including Reckless in 1993, which is where I first met him) while he worked at Sony. A couple of years ago, Sony closed up the office he was at, and offered Bakely early retirement. “Now I was truly tired of working in an office and wanted to go back to my life, so I took it.”

A couple of years ago, he went back to UMKC and will graduate this spring with a master’s degree in playwriting.

David Veazey, Pete Bakely, and Aaron Houx in ‘Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Nairba Sirrah.

“I’m working with some very good people there,” he says. ” My playwriting instructor is Frank Higgins. I knew him from years ago, and it’s just been a delight working with him lately. And he’s got an unerring eye for excess stuff. He is just got the best person for know laser-eye for cutting – you know: no, you don’t need that; you don’t need that – because as he says, he does that, too. He overwrites and over-explains what his characters are doing and then walks through it and cuts it all out so that it’s just the mere bones of the play he pieces together. And he’s got a perfect eye for that stuff.”

In fact, the play he wrote that’s in The Barn Players’ 6 x 10 Ten Minute Play Festival is a play that came out of one of the first writing exercises in his playwriting class, which is two characters have to negotiate over an object.

“The object is a stapler,” he explains, “and the play is about two people early in the morning before work at an office who converge to loot the desk of a person who was recently removed from the company. I set it up that she was fired, so a lot of the stuff was still left there. And it’s just the two of them bantering back and forth and negotiating each of the items, which finally comes down to a staple gun.

“It’s mostly comedy,” he continues. “It’s about banter. I mean, there’s some undercurrents there, but it’s just people basically dealing with trying to keep their jobs while at the same time trying to keep their sanity and working in this type of place.”

His portfolio he submitted for graduation includes eight scripts, three of which are full-length plays he’s finishing. He’s been tentatively showing them around in the hopes of getting them produced, and even is looking into having one be a part of next year’s Fringe Festival.

When it comes down to how he writes, Bakely says he starts with a character first. “I approach playwriting as an actor, which means that as I’m writing, I’m basically playing, improvising all the parts in my head and just letting them talk to each other. I know that sounds weird, but as an actor, you understand that that’s a lot of how you do it. What would I say? What would I think? How would I react? And so a lot of times, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the scene, but I just gotta sit down and let them talk to each other. And then sometimes I have to go down and make them shut up.”

While he tries to not base any of his characters on family and friends, he admits that he is influenced by them. “One thing that I do is I generally will cast the actors in my head as I’m writing it, and that way it helps me to see how it would be performed on stage by thinking about certain people.”

As for combating writer’s block, Bakely says, “My block is starting. As I point out, the all important procrastination part of the process is that I do absolutely my best work right before I’ve told people I’m going to have it done. They’re not giving me deadlines – I’m coming up and saying, ‘I will turn this in this date,’ so that I will turn it into that date. And sometimes I’ve been writing something just up to the last second, but if I sit down and do it, I will just keep writing it. The one thing that I had to learn, and the one thing I have to keep, you know, other people in the class says, ‘okay’, if you have to write it badly but write it, you can always fix badly.

Photo by Nairba Sirrah.

“Now, that’s not to say I haven’t come up dry every once in a while, but for the most part, you know, my mind is just shooting through. But I read everything I can get my hands on. I watch everything I can watch. I’m on the computer, on the internet, doing that. I have, I’m a person who just loves overblown information, and I take that and sift it out and occasionally seven or eight things will come together at once and go, ‘Oh!’ I’m always looking for a convergence that I haven’t seen before, that I didn’t know about.”

His advice for new playwrights follows that tip. “Write something bad as opposed to writing nothing,” Bakely says. “The only way you get good is by being bad many, many times. Don’t pace yourself against other people around you. You’re always you’re own unique identity and you really cannot compare yourself to anybody else, so if you try to, you’ll drive yourself crazy. And just let it happen.”

But how to deal with the inner editor that tells you you’re writing something bad? Bakely has a quick response for that as well. “I trust the inner editor for one thing for a lot of stuff, because the inner editor’s fairly lazy and will want to get away with quite a lot,” he says with a laugh. “The big trick is the same thing with acting. You have to watch just working something to death, thinking something to death. It’s very easy to take something to death. So, the best thing to do, and the best thing I learned as an actor, is that after all the rehearsing, after all that stuff that you’re doing, you end up walking in and trying to absolutely clear your mind before you go on stage in front of an audience or before you sit down in front and to just let it flow out. You think about all the stuff, you do all that stuff, and then you just go through. I’d rather lose a good idea then fall in love with a mediocre idea. That’s a technique I learned as an actor is learning how to clear everything and just go. And that’s a huge, important part of it.”

So, who’s his audience? “I’m writing for me. The main reason for that is that I don’t know what other people would want. I write for me, assuming that what I find funny or what I find moving or what I find interesting will touch other people, but that’s my only choice. I don’t ever want to think, ‘Well, you know, I’m going to miss the general audience.’ Anybody who goes to plays are smart enough to figure out what I’m writing.”

Bakely has directed before, and so the question came up as to whether he considered putting his hat in the ring to direct his own play at The Barn Players. “Not at this point. I trust the process. And if the people let it flow. The one good thing – directors can be good or bad, but if you’ve got anybody halfway decent, it’s just great to have another set of eyes on it.

“The thing is that the creative process, the theatre, is a communal art form. You cannot do it by yourself. And you send this thing out, but what you’ve got to do is when you put the other eyes on it and you put those actors on it, then what you’re attempting to do is create an equation that’s bigger than the sum of its part. You are looking to add one plus one plus one and get five or six or seven. You want the convergence of all these things to create something entirely new out of itself.

Peter Bakely’s play “Vicky’s Desk”, is part of The Barn Players’ 3rd annual 6 x 10 Ten Minute Play Festival, which performs Dec 3-5. Tickets are $10 for adults, $7 for students, and more information can be found at www.thebarnplayers.org/tenminute.