ST. PETERSBURG — Playwright Bill Leavengood is following that old dictum to write about what you know.
So it's no wonder that the inspiration for his latest work, Lourdes of the Flies, came from his observations of student cliques while working as director of theater programs at Shorecrest Preparatory School.
"It's bedroom farce for 18-year-olds," Leavengood said over coffee at a shop near the Palladium Theater, where the play opens Friday in the downstairs Side Door Cabaret. "I started to write it for my students at Shorecrest, but it quickly became way too crazy and bawdy. So I started thinking in terms of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom or Zombie Prom, that kind of late-night, twisted theater. It goes right to the limit."
The premise is that a collection of prep school girls sink their cruise ship and end up stranded on a volcanic island. Lourdes is "an overmedicated misfit" who leads a group of "outcast-a-ways," while Hanna, a homecoming queen and prom committee chair, heads a tribe of popular girls. Other characters include a high school football hero who turns out to be a cross-dressing gay guy and an assistant headmistress "rewired after a blow to the head to believe she is a bisexual nymphomaniac."
"It zips right along and makes its own absurd sense," said Leavengood, who directed the cast, mostly students from Shorecrest and the University of Tampa.
Leavengood, 51, has taught at Shorecrest for 16 years, but he has also managed to be a productive playwright. Several of his plays have enjoyed success in the bay area, such as the musical he wrote with composer Lee Ahlin, Webb's City, and he has a national profile.
Special, a one-person play Leavengood wrote to be performed by New York actor Elissa Middleton, premieres Sept. 12 and runs through Oct. 2 at Theatre Row's Studio Theatre on 42nd Street in New York. The play is about two women, a special-ed teacher and a visual artist whose young son is autistic.
Awards ceremony a bittersweet event
With two new plays opening within a month of each other, this is an exciting time for Leavengood, but there is also a melancholy occasion to mark on Monday, when the inaugural Jeff Norton Theatre Awards are given out at the Palladium. The awards for excellence in Tampa Bay theater memorialize actor Jeff Norton, the victim of a murder in St. Petersburg in 2010.
Leavengood and Norton were friends and colleagues at Shorecrest, where the actor was the theater manager. "The irony is that Jeff himself was not into award giving," Leavengood said. "I think he would be really touched that everyone thought so highly of him, but I don't know if this would be his cup of tea or not."
During his years at Shorecrest, Norton had cut back on his acting, but Leavengood has fond memories of his work in some of his plays, including Webb's City. "Onstage Jeff was always so giving to the other actors, and low maintenance," he said. "He was always ready. He always had his own ideas about things, and he was almost always on target."
Norton's acting resume included a lot of memorable characters, but there are a few that Leavengood wishes he could have seen him play, such as a pair of villains. "Richard III in Shakespeare is one," he said. "And I think Jeff would have made a great Fagin in Oliver!"
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.