Port Townsend High School senior Ian Coates was browsing Wikipedia one day when he stumbled across a page for William McGonagall, infamous for writing some of the worst poetry in the English language.
He read one of the 19th-century Scot’s poems aloud.
“Trying to say his poems out loud was like a rhythmic nightmare,” Coates said.
Now, a year later, McGonagall and his terrible poetry are brought to life in “The Disaster in Verse,” a musical Coates wrote, directed and produced for his senior project.
The musical tells the tale of McGonagall’s adventures, antics and verse as he endeavors to earn the patronage of Queen Victoria.
Featuring a cast and crew of seasoned Port Townsend High School drama students, along with a few newcomers to drama, the show receives its world premiere on Friday, Jan. 13, and plays weekends through Jan. 21.
STUDYING THE ART
Coates, 17, had already been considering writing a musical for his senior project when he discovered McGonagall.
“I wanted to do something that would combine my interests in theater, creative writing and music,” said Coates, who has been in many a PTHS and Key City Public Theatre (KCPT) production, written one-act plays and also plays the bass.
Writing “The Disaster in Verse” not only actualized those interests, but enabled him to exercise his appreciation for surreal, absurd and off-the-wall comedy.
Coates devoted his summer to studying musicals, delving deep into all aspects of the art form, and was mentored by local writer Patrick Jennings and composer Linda Dowdell.
“He’s always been very funny,” Jennings said of Coates, who has been a part of Jennings’ student writing group, Pato’s Cave, for many years. “He has such energy and cleverness.”
“I smiled throughout the whole process – I just smiled and smiled and beamed at him,” Jennings said.
“I expect this guy to go really far.”
Coates studied the musical aspect of the project with Dowdell, who most recently wrote “Spirit of the Yule” for KCPT and has worked with Coates on other theater projects.
“Just to be able to conceive the whole thing!” Dowdell exclaimed, noting that Coates is also highly organized and very willing to rewrite, a quality she finds unique and valuable. Like Jennings, she also appreciated Coates’ funny side.
“Ian has a very, very, very dry sense of humor,” Dowdell said.
LYRICS & LAUGHS
In studying musicals and writing his own songs, Coates found that the combination of dialogue and music offered more ways to convey emotions, and it is in the pairing of lyrics and melody that the comedic magic of “The Disaster in Verse” happens.
Relating an anecdote, Jennings recalled reading a lyric Coates had written on the page and not quite getting the humor if it.
“Then [Coates] would perform it for me, and I would laugh and laugh.”
Coates also interspersed his original writing with what he considered to be the most terrible specimens of McGonagall’s poems, some of which are spoken aloud over a melody, in the fashion of the late actor Rex Harrison. (Harrison, of “Doctor Doolittle” and “My Fair Lady” fame, was known for talking on pitch rather than singing.)
“Doing that really highlights all the awkward pauses and terrible lines that are in all of his poems,” Coates said.
Jennings said the audience will walk out warm from laughter, thinking, “Wow, what a precocious young artist – he’s going to go far.”
But in the end, it’s all about the antics of the comedy.
“[Coates] won’t want them to think that – he’ll just want them to laugh, and maybe hum.”
CAST & CREW
Coates is not only the play’s author, but also its director and producer, handling everything from auditions to press releases to staging (while also being a full-time student applying to colleges).
“I couldn’t have done this without all the help that I’ve had,” he said, mentioning SOS Printing offering to print all the posters for free, and fellow student Noah Morningstar, who directed a PTHS play in 2015.
“He’s been a big help,” Coates said.
Austin Krieg takes the lead as William McGonagall, performing with cast members Joey Gallegos, Mimi Grant, Mahina Gelderloos, Jessica Von Volkli, Caleb Lumbard, Liv Crecca, Jacob Pederson, Miranda McClave, Rowan Gallagher, Alyssa Orey and Rosanna Widner.
Backstage work is done by Natalie Gannon, Phoebe Arthur, Gannon Short, Rosalyn Emalee Salmon, Megan Jennings, Sam Jasper, Gannon Short, Jim Guthrie, Mark Grant, Noah Morningstar, Austin Krieg, Kelly Doran, Eli Harding, Tate Munnich, Alivia Brass and Joey Ripley.
The band is composed of Darrel Plank, Clover Coupe-Carlin, Alejandro Montañez, Declan Goldenbogen and Kincaid Gould.