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Writing 'Coyote Moon' a howl for author Sam D. White

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Sam White, seen here as Ralph Waldo in Broom Street Theatre's production of "The Nails," considers himself a "complete" theater artist because he works as an actor, playwright and director. Photo: Dan Myers.

A young man, a pregnant girlfriend, a country tavern and the scent of lycanthropy in the air. Will Frank turn into a “were-coyote” when the full moon rises?

All questions will be answered in Madison author Sam D. White’s latest play Coyote Moon. The comedy is currently being produced by Mercury Players Theatre on the Evjue Stage in Madison’s Bartell Theatre.

White, an actor, director, playwright and longtime member of the Madison and Milwaukee theater communities, is a co-founder of Forward Theater and a member of the troupe’s advisory company. The Madison native also served for 20 years in the U.S. Army, was employed as a drivers’ ed instructor and for the past five years has been program support supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ Sex Offender Registry.

As author and humorist Garrison Keillor once noted, for writers there are no challenges in life — it's all “material.” And White allows that he has more material at his disposal than most writers.

Coyote Moon, winner of the 2013 Wisconsin Wrights New Play award, centers on Frank, a down-on-his-luck guy who's out of work, recently lost his girlfriend and thinks he's a were-coyote. To keep himself from getting fuzzy and destroying his neighborhood, he decides to chain himself up at his mom's tavern overnight, prompting his friends and family to visit and watch his growing distress.

The play isn't White’s first, but his time on stage as an actor and behind the scenes as director has kept him away from the keyboard more than he would like. He just finished directing Strollers Theatre’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance. Later this month he will appear as Prospero in Madison Theatre Guild’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

“I like to consider myself a ‘complete’ theater artist because I enjoy acting, directing and playwriting,” White says. “Acting is central to me, but I have been a serious dabbler in playwriting since college.”

White took time out from acting, directing and dabbling to talk about his latest work and the window it provides to his own life.

How critical is lycanthropy to the Coyote Moon's central theme?

The “were-ness” is not the true center of the story as much as it is a fun and unusual device I use to explore other themes. The (initial) plot question is whether or not Frank really is a were-coyote. The other big question is why he thinks he has lycanthropy and why he chained himself up out back of his mom’s country tavern.  But that is, I hope, only part of the play.

In a nutshell, the play is about the chains we fight against our whole lives. We often blame those chains on circumstance or other people, but when in truth, we essentially wrapped ourselves up in them. I think the “were-ness” also touches on the wildness and the primal that is in all of us. And in some of us more than others.

Your lead character sounds a little hapless to me. How did he get to where he is in your story?

Hapless is a good word to describe Frank.  He’s a pretty typical rural, Midwestern 20-year-old, which I think resonates in this piece. His primary motivation in life is to have fun — drink beer, drive fast and chase girls.  He’s truly a live-for-the-moment person.

But recently he’s begun to realize that his lifestyle’s a dead end. It especially hits home when he gets his girlfriend pregnant. I guess life gets too serious too fast.  Then this were-critter thing happens and that sends him off into oblivion. He does what he thinks is the right thing and locks himself up like a dog so he doesn’t hurt anyone.  Of course, everyone finds him, and he receives a very good life lesson, mostly through intense humiliation.

What prompted the play’s narrative? Is there any part of you to be found in Frank?

This play came from so many places that it’s impossible to detail. It actually started out as a character study for an earlier play I was trying to write, and may still finish, called Happy Corners, the name of Frank’s mom’s country tavern. Also, check out the k.d. lang song “Full Moon of Love.” The second I heard that song, I knew what the story was going to be.

But in truth Frank is completely me. I call this my metaphorical autobiography. I am still am that happy go lucky, live-in-the-moment guy.  My wife Celia Klehr (an actor and Forward Theater company manager) reminds me of it constantly. Earlier in the process, it was an expression of the frustration and huge regret I used to have that I never truly pursued my professional theater career, and how I placed blame for that on a lot of factors and people. It is a regret that I have long since put to rest because, looking back, I realized all of the things that caused that regret were choices that I made myself.

What is the central message, then, of Coyote Moon?

It’s basically that any regrets we have about our lives and any limits we that have been placed upon us are self-imposed. We need to choose to be happy and not accept the mundane. Another big theme in this is change, in both the real and metaphorical senses. We have control over many of our life’s changes and some we don’t. It’s also an expression that good theater itself is about change.

What about changes in your life?

I am having so much fun right now, it’s unbelievable.  I can’t wait until I can retire from my survival job and do it full time. I have no regrets, because my professional career never ended and the future looks bright. I can’t wait until I can sit and write eight hours a day. I am more than capable of it, and I love it.

Mercury Players Theatre’s production of Sam D. White’s Coyote Moon runs for seven performances April 8 to 23 at the Bartell Theatre, 113 E. Mifflin St., Madison. Tickets run from $15 to $20. For tickets, call the Bartell box office at 608-661-9696 or visit bartelltheatre.org.

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