Randy performing at Dear Diary
Bunny Gumbo produced its first show in the winter of 2000, and Randy Rehberg was one of the original playwrights involved in that inaugural production of Combat Theatre. Combat Theatre is comprised of shows that are written, directed and acted within 24 hours. The writers pick a subject and location and then rush off to complete the play by the next morning. Since that first show, Randy has been a part of every single Combat, writing 44 plays to date. In addition to Combat, Randy wrote a full length play entitled ‘Keep it in the Family’ for another of Bunny Gumbo’s productions, Criminal Acts. We decided it was high time to learn a little more about Mr. Rehberg.
From Keep it in the Family
Bunny Gumbo: What first got you involved in theatre?
Randy Rehberg: I first got involved in theatre during my senior year of high school when I was in our senior play, ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Musical.’ Since I really couldn’t sing or dance very well, I added some comic relief to the show. It was good fun and a great bonding experience. The next year, I tried out for a drama at UW-Waukesha and was completely surprised when I got one of the leads. The play was a new work about the Civil War (Leander Stillwell by David Rush) and our director, David Hundhausen, really involved the cast in developing the production, and I became fascinated with the collaborative process of theatre.
BG: What’s your background?
RR: Besides the shady and probably criminal activities of some of my ancestors, my background is pretty boring.
From Son of Goldfinger
BG: Did you grow up around here?
RR: I grew up in Waukesha County, mostly in Dousman, which had a total population of 400 people when I lived there.
BG: Where did you go to school?
RR: Where I didn’t go to school would make a shorter list. I went to 6 different schools, including UW-Waukesha and UWM. I graduated from UW-Stevens Point.
From Going to Graceland
BG: Why did you move around so much?
RR: A variety of reasons. My first semester in college, I attended UWM and it seemed so impersonal with hundreds of students in large lecture halls, so I transferred to UW-Waukesha. Since that was a two-year school, I went to Stevens Point. After graduating, I tried grad school and was a teaching assistant at Oklahoma State University in English, and added a journalism minor.
BG: Was your concentration in theatre?
RR: No, I had a BS in English with a teaching certificate and a writing minor. I liked the director at UW-Waukesha, so I took the theatre classes he taught there. Then I just continued taking playwriting and other theatre classes at the other schools. I’ve written fiction and found I get too hung up on writing description, which is why I enjoy playwriting.
From Fireflies, A Burlesque
BG: What was your first professional gig?
RR: I had a play produced in Homer, Alaska. Geography was never my strong suit. When the letter arrived, I saw the AK abbreviation and thought it was Arkansas. It was definitely a long-distance collaborative process. But it turned out okay. Pre-YouTube. I watched a tape of it and it got decent reviews.
BG: Why Milwaukee?
RR: Friends and family mostly. When my wife Pam was finishing up her MFA at Northern Illinois University, the PTTP (The Professional Theatre Training Program, an MFA acting program begun by Sanford Robbins in the early 70’s) was starting up at UWM. I made sure she applied as soon as she could for a faculty position, so we could get out of Bears country and back to Packerland.
From Fangs for the Memories
BG: Your wife, Pam, is a costumer. How did the two of you meet?
RR: We met doing a community theater production in Oconomowoc called ‘The Shame of Tombstone.’ I was acting in it and she was doing costumes. I promised her I wouldn’t say, “She took my measurements and the rest was history.”
BG: Besides the shows you’ve written for Bunny Gumbo, what else have you written and where have they been produced?
RR: One oldie but goodie is a show called ‘Mystery at Midnight.’ It started out as a one act but I expanded it to a full-length play. It was the one produced in Alaska. It was also produced in Chicago and at UW-Waukesha when its new theatre opened.
I also wrote a variety of Combat-like plays through UWM for Human Experience Theatre that were produced in various locations. They were short interactive training plays for corporations, universities, and non-profit organizations that dealt with issues such as racism, sexual harassment, and even plagiarism. In addition to covering the topic, there were always specific character types or requested elements to incorporate. The hardest part to write were the endings; because they were used in interactive training, the plays couldn’t have conclusions. It was hard to leave your characters hanging.
From Land ‘O Libre
BG: You write for a living, tell us about that.
RR: I started writing scripts based on my favorite TV shows when I was in grade school. Ever since, I always wanted to be a writer of some sort. I’ve written and edited all kinds of things. I’ve been lucky and experienced a lot on projects. I got to go to Hollywood and see the set for Batman Returns because I was doing some kids books based on the movies. I went to the NBA offices in New York, and rewrote a website for LEGO in Denmark. I’ve interviewed astronauts, politicians, athletes, and celebrities. I even met Alex Haley because of knowing how much a bull weighed. The one drawback is that after writing and editing books all day, sometimes it’s hard to come home and write stuff for yourself.
BG: All right, don’t leave us hanging; how do you know how much a bull weighs and how did that knowledge lead to meeting Alex Haley?
RR: Several friends, a graphic designer and ad salesman…
BG: This sounds like the beginning of a joke.
RR: Right? They were interested in starting a magazine about log homes and asked if wanted to edit and write it. They set up a trip to Museum of Appalachia in Tennessee. After we drove down, the founder decided he didn’t want to talk to us. The week before, he had been interviewed by some journalists from New York and the experience didn’t go well, so he didn’t want to deal with any more. It had rained and the New York people were not happy slopping around in the mud, and he had to deal with their complaints. After some pleading on our part, he offered us a challenge. If we could tell him how much a bull in his pasture weighed, he would agree to talk to us. Being country boys from Wisconsin, and not city slickers from New York, we huddled up and guessed about 800 pounds, and the bull was 850. As he led us around we started interviewing him and he just asked if I wanted to meet Alex Haley, who had a farm next to the museum. Of course, I said yes. He called him up and Alex Haley came over. I have a photo hanging in the office of the two of us looking at some machinery.
From Damn, It’s Hot Out Here
BG: What was your favorite gig?
RR: Because of the immediacy, every Combat script is my favorite gig until the next one is written. I haven’t read it in awhile but ‘Mystery at Midnight’ is probably my favorite. It was my first decent full-length script. People I respect asked to do it and it’s one of the few times since ‘The Shame of Tombstone’ that my wife did costumes for it.
BG: What’s the plot of ‘Mystery at Midnight?’
RR: It’s set in the 1940s. An actor on a radio show becomes involved in a murder that echoes the show’s script. Things get blurry, and it’s not just the scotch. The play combines film noir, comedy, and radio sound effects as the hero tries to unravel a mystery, find himself, and win the dame.
From A Clean Sweep
BG: What was your scariest gig?
RR: I played the Father in ‘A Christmas Story’ for the Racine Theatre Guild. I hadn’t been on stage for a while, and trying to memorize the gibberish curses aimed at the furnace was hard. I was afraid that I would slip up and let out a real string of profanity if I messed up one of the lines.
BG: Is there a dream project out there that you’ve been working on?
RR: I’m finishing up an adaptation of Robin Hood and starting on a play about some of the weird and humorous things that happen during theater productions.
BG: Getting back to Combat Theatre, do you find the constraints liberating or confining?
RR: Both. There’s really a lot you can do with a 10-minute play. Every time out at the start, however, there’s one terrifying moment when it’s just you and the computer screen, and the thought runs through your head, “What if this is the time that I draw a blank and can’t think of anything to write?” Then you take a deep breath and say, “Suck it up, you can do this. There are people counting on you.”
BG: Are some subjects and locations more difficult than others?
RR: Sometimes the hardest ones to write are those with actual people and locations or established characters because people have ideas of what these people or places should be (I think.) If you have to write about Captain Kirk, people want to see William Shatner, so you can be confined to this perception. Sometimes the time constraint works against you. You may get an idea that you think is great, get about halfway through, find it doesn’t work, and have to salvage it because there’s not enough time to start over. There are times when I feel constrained by my own mind. When you see pieces by the other writers, I think how did they do that, why couldn’t I think of that? Also, subjects I don’t know much about are more difficult, since I have to do some research before writing (especially when picked on Fridays, since we lose time because of the show.) Thank God for Wikipedia and YouTube.
And it can be liberating because you can try new ideas and conventions. I love taking things from films or TV that you would never think you would see on stage and trying to make them work. Because of the format and the openness of stage, you can go anywhere. There’s also the one evil temptation where you think to yourself, “What bizarre, nasty things can I make the actors do?” Luckily, that thought usually passes quickly.
From Underdog: The Lost Episode
BG: Has there been a Combat play that you felt like you completely failed?
RR: None completely, but obviously some turn out better than others, and it starts with the writing. You may go in a direction that just doesn’t work as good as you thought it would. Sometimes, the simpler ones are the best. I think at times you try to add too much in addition to the subject and location. I also learned from the early plays that you shouldn’t put the whole meaning of the play in one line at the end, because if it gets missed by the audience, they have no idea what the last 10 minutes was about.
BG: Once you’ve written these plays, they’re turned over to the actors and directors. Are you ever surprised by what they do to them?
RR: Yes, I am continually surprised. And this is the part of the process I love. When everything comes together. I try not to overwrite and give the director and actors some leeway in characterization and staging. Usually during read-through, I get a sense if they get what I’m trying to do, and they usually add things that enhance the play. For example, in ‘Pee-Wee’s Fan Adventure’ (during Best of Combat), it was a small bit, but the head shot of the box fan just cracked me up. And watching Angela (Iannone) dance a complete number wrapped in Christmas lights was fantastic in ‘Fireflies, a Burlesque.’ I think my stage direction was “We see a light dance.”
From Fireflies, a Burlesque
BG: Is there a favorite Combat piece that you’ve written, and if so, why?
RR: There are a few. ‘Enter the Eggman’ I think was one of my first good ones, ‘Ballet in Lambeau No. 3-19,’ and both ‘Fireflies, a Burlesque,’ and ‘Pee-Wee’s Fan Adventure.’
BG: Is it hard to sit out in the audience and watch these plays come to life? Not just Combat, any of your plays?
RR: Not as much anymore. There’s always a little trepidation along with the excitement. If I’ve done my job to give them enough to work with, I have faith in the director and actors to bring the script to life. It’s been a while since I’ve gone all Franz Liebkind (from The Producers) after a show.
Randy Rehberg lives in Franksville, Wisconsin with his wife Pam.
Pam and Randy Rehberg