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But seriously, folks

Playwright Matt Fotis' big comedy award is nothing to laugh at

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: April 29, 2011
Matt Fotis

MU doctoral student Matt Fotis has won the 2010-11 Mark Twain Prize for Comic Playwriting, the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival award honoring the best student-written, full-length comic script in the nation.

Doctoral student Matt Fotis can smile broadly about the serious writing award he won in comedy: the 2010-11 Mark Twain Prize for Comic Playwriting.

The Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival announced in late March that judges had selected The Book of Adam as the best student-written, full-length comic script of the playwriting program.  

Merriment ensues in the Department of Theatre.

Fotis pockets a $2,500 cash award — to be applied toward diapers (explanation to follow) — and receives an expenses-paid professional development fellowship of his choice, probably at a conference for new-play development. 

Fotis wrote The Book of Adam for a graduate playwriting course in MU’s theater department and in October 2010 submitted it to ACTF, where it was selected as the winning comedy among 97 entries nationally.

But wait

There’s drama connected to this fun. As if the Twain Prize weren’t stunning enough, Fotis received nods from the Kennedy Center Short Play competition as a national finalist in two other categories: 10-minute plays and one-act plays.

“This has never happened before,” says Jaamil Kosoko, KCACTF press representative.

The accomplishment is not an easy feat. For the 10-minute play competition, Fotis’ script, 58 & 59, competed against more than 960 submissions to emerge as one of five national finalists. His Nights on the Couch, which went up against a similar number of entries, was one of four finalists. All finalists in those categories received staged readings at the Kennedy Center 2011 festival the week of April 18.

Of the unprecedented honors, Fotis says: “I’m a better writer at 31 than at 21 because of life experiences, writing experiences and bad plays I’ve written before. Sometimes you have to write a bad play to write a good play.” 

Creative Creationism

Winners of the Twain Prize take on the role of satirists and fearless observers of society, and judges of the competition assume Twain winners will outrage some people while delighting many.

Amen to that with Fotis’ play, which is a commentary on evolution, Creationism and marriage.

For The Book of Adam, Fotis drew subject material from his work experience with a public relations firm in Chicago and from everyday family life.

His play follows Adam, a public relations executive in Chicago, whose firm tries to rehab the image of an anti-evolution company — The Seventh Day Society. Adam discovers the company’s CEO, Emma Wedgewood (same name as Charles Darwin’s wife), is running against Adam’s wife, Eve, for a school-board position. Adam is caught between saving the company and saving his marriage. To further complicate matters, Adam’s dad, who is fighting dementia, thinks he might be God. 

In the beginning

Matt Fotis

With two toddlers at home and a third child due in June, Fotis finds his work space doubling as play space. Day-to-day family life served as inspiration for his Mark Twain Award-winning play, "The Book of Adam." 

At 6 feet, 5 inches, Fotis looks like he should be playing basketball, and he’d enjoy that, or baseball, or pretty much any game. In high school he was named most valuable player on his suburban Chicago baseball team.

Because sports talk doesn’t exactly resonate with the theater group, Fotis is an unlikely theater aficionado. “People in theater have their favorite musicals of all time and like to talk about them. I want to talk about the ’84 Chicago Cubs, but nobody cares,” he says.

Fotis got hooked on theater his freshman year at Monmouth (Ill.) College after a friend asked him to be in a play. A year later he took a directing class and couldn’t find a play he liked, so he wrote his own.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in theater and history and a master’s degree in theater, Fotis found his first real job with a Chicago public relations firm. 

“The whole concept of PR is funny. Everyone who works in PR is insanely cool, so for a nerd it’s kind of like getting to see what it was like having perfect skin and being popular in high school,” he says.

PR became history, too, when he, his wife, Jeanette, and baby son moved to Columbia in 2008 so Fotis could begin work on his doctorate and continue performance. He was drawn by MU’s Writing for Performance program.

The family now includes another boy, 16 months, and will add a girl in June. Thus the need for diaper money.

Let there be fun

Despite his obvious comedic talent, Fotis insists he’s shy and introverted: “I’m not a social mingler; that’s my wife’s job.” His brother affirms that Fotis is quiet, although not “serial-killer quiet.”

Fotis has always valued humor and theorizes he inherited the gift from his mom, Vickie, who describes her sons’ growing-up years as a “household of hysteria.” The two brothers came up with a lot of things together that at least they thought were hilarious.

Vickie rationalizes how Matt practiced his gift by morphing the Fotis family into recognizable characters for plays. “He spent most of his youth embarrassed by his family and apparently squirreling away ideas to script our lives on stage for revenge,” she says.

Beyond class work and home life, Fotis discovered through improvisation how things can be structured to be funny. “A lot of American comedy comes out of improv training,” he says.

Fotis established MU Improv last year to give students experience in long-form improv, a longer narrative version of comedy-wars games. The group meets Thursday evenings at Memorial Union and performs monthly in Chamber Auditorium at the MU Student Union.  

In more serious endeavors, Fotis teaches two undergraduate classes a semester in acting, playwriting and improvisation, and he's writing his dissertation. 

“Matt is a gifted playwright and a wonderful teacher of playwriting. He's pretty much won the triple crown of playwriting through KCACTF,” says associate professor David Crespy, who will produce a concert reading of The Book of Adam this summer as part of the 2011 Comedies-in-Concert Series.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012