Jeff Messer has written dozens of plays -- including Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood (originally 2000 with subsequent revivals) and Robin Hood: The Quest for Justice (2019) with co-writer Robert Akers. His other plays include the anti-Iraq War This War is Live (2008) and Sherlock Holmes Returns (2013).
He is also the former host The Jeff Messer Show on 880 The Revolution / iHeartRADIO and The Geek Brain Pop Cast. He also hosts the new video series Issues With...
Jeff Messer's observations on politics and his radio career are captured in his 2014 book Red-state, White-guy Blues. In 2018, he contributed to the biography of a comic book legend -- Mike Grell: Life Without An Eraser. He's currently relaunching several Mike Grell properties as editor / co-publisher of Masterstroke Studios.
Jeff lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
Facebook page for Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood
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This interview was conducted via e-mail in June and July 2019.
AWW: I know it's a standard first question of mine, but I'm always interested in this. How did you first encounter the Robin Hood legend and what did it mean to you?
JM: Honestly, it may have been either Bugs Bunny cartoons or Green Arrow comic books. But it was a concept that instantly appealed to me. My uncle bought me a collection of condensed classics for Christmas when I was about 9, and Robin Hood was among the set. It became a favorite right away.
AWW: How did you and Robert Akers first decide to write Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood – nearly 20 years ago?
JM: Robert and I met in the community theatre that would eventually world premiere the first show. We met in 1990, became fast friends and quickly decided to collaborate. We liked a lot of the same things from Robin Hood to Star Wars and beyond. He was a musician, and I was a young aspiring writer. After the Robin Hood craze of the early 1990s, we started talking about there not being a theatrical production of Robin Hood. Namely, no musical.We couldn't figure out why (firing arrows is why, by the way) and we decided we should work together to write the first ever Robin Hood Broadway musical. [AWW - There have been Robin Hood musicals in the UK and you could say that Reginald De Koven's late 19th century operetta Robin Hood: A Comic Opera was a popular precursor to the modern musical.]
In 1999, we saw a production of Beauty and The Beast by a playwright who convinced our home theatre into doing his show. It was an original musical version (not Disney), and it was honestly not that good. Robert and I decided during the intermission of that show that we needed to write Robin Hood and pitch it to the theatre for the next season.
We did. They did it. And the rest is somewhat history, as they say.
AWW: I was comparing the original script that I was sent back in 2000 to the 2018 production that you posted on YouTube. I could see while much remained the same, a lot had changed. How did the show evolve during its performance history?
JM: The first one was almost a musical. Then we realized that there was too much story to tell without songs, so we dropped them save Allan A'Dale and some group campfire numbers. (I dreamed up the horrific and challenging idea of Robin and Little John staff fighting as a song where they banter the lyrics, and then provide percussion with their staff hits. This would have been an insane challenge to pull off, and luckily we didn't try).
We wrote much of it together, tossing ideas back and forth, and crafting dialogue from our own banter. It was incredibly fun.
The first version was a classic 3 act play. Once the initial run was a sold out smash hit, the intermissions were half an hour long (lines at bathrooms), and the whole evening was over 3 hours. We knew that we should change it to a two act, which we did. To do this, the break was different, and we wrote some new scenes to help with this. A simple Soldier of the Sheriff's became Cedric, who taunted the castle spy Catherine, developing a subplot for those characters. Mainly this grew out of having a strong actor in that role, who inspired us to write more stuff for him, and give the character a name.
We also wrote a sequel script quickly after the first one, which would lead to a third script, finishing out the full legend. And a few years later we decided that, instead of a trilogy, we could do two pairs of plays (one pair of the early legend, and another pair of the end of the legend, with about 15 years gap between them.)
To make the new quadrilogy concept work, we took the original ending with King Richard's return, and moved it to the end of the second play, added a couple of new scenes to the first one, and ended it after the famous archery contest. Then we wrote a whole new adventure and put Richard's return at the end of that one.
Each time we have been a part of the plays being produced, we work closely with actors and directors to make sure that it works, which can mean dropping lines, sequences, and bits as well as adding things. Which we have done recently, just days prior to the show opening. And some of the best scenes have come out of those situations.
A show like this is a huge undertaking to stage, and depending on where it is staged (in doors or out doors) there are certain challenges that you have to work around. So we stay flexible. Our only goal has been to make each production the best possible production within that venue, so we allow for alterations so long as the essence of the story are not tinkered with too much.
Outdoors, you have audiences with kids, dogs, picnics, wine, etc. And they interact more than indoor crowds, so we quickly had to let the cast play off of the boos for the villains and cheers for the heroes. For example, during the archery contest, the audience is treated as if they are there at the contest, so when Robin breaks loose, it is easy to get them involved in cheering him on during the fight. It becomes something more like a festival than a play at that point, and you have to sort of give the audience what they want. Plus, it makes it a lot of fun.
Our only goal has been to keep making the scripts better with each pass we take at them, and each production.
AWW: What's been the most gratifying experience to see the show be performed so many times over the years?
JM: It has been amazing to see how it resonates with audiences of all ages. Something about Robin Hood really appeals to people on a deeper level. It's fun, but it has a lot of heart to it, and really has a strong sense of morality that I think people feel drawn towards.
Every time the show has been produced, it has been a huge success for the theatres that produce it. In fact, the first production back in 2000 was so successful that, on opening night, the producer came to us and asked if we could extend the show a third weekend. The entire original two week run was going to be sold out before the second performance, and people were clamoring for tickets. After that, the theatre changed their business model, and now shows all run three weekends there (four for musicals).
The shows are a challenge for any theatre. They have large casts, huge stunts and fights, and some difficult visual effects (we figured out how to fire arrows and even split an arrow live on stage in front of an amazed audience). But the show and Robin Hood is almost as sure of a thing as I've ever seen. It draws massive audiences every time its done.
AWW: What can you tell us about this year's sequel production Robin Hood: The Quest for Justice? I noticed some of the third act from the 2000 script was incorporated into this new production.
JM: As I mentioned, we went from three plays to four, in our overall concept (actually we also have some Young Robin Hood adventures in one act form, and two prequel scripts in the works as well, and a possible "next generation" concept that is set up by the end of the fourth play). In making a new second script that would put a nice button on the early legend of Robin Hood, the ending with King Richard's return, and Robin and Marian being married, felt like the best place to leave off. So we moved Richard's return to the end of play 2, and ended play 1 after the archery contest, which is a nice ending, but leaves the door open for more adventures.
Sir Guy of Gisbourne, whom we chose to be a comedic character, was enormously popular with audiences. But we had written him out of the story, having him flee for fear of returning empty handed to the Sheriff after being robbed three times in a row. So we had to figure out a way to bring him back.
We centered the plot around Guy having stolen a bunch of deeds from the Sheriff, as well as vital information he could use as blackmail if he had to. In this we also learn of the plot between Prince John and the Sheriff to let King Richard die in captivity instead of paying the ransom.
In the process, Guy is caught trying to dig up the stolen documents, and locked in the dungeon. His lack of cooperation leads the Sheriff to employ Guy's evil twin, Gregory, to pose as Guy in order to control the seized lands as well as marry Marian to keep her uncle, the Bishop from gaining them once she is sent to a nunnery.
So, there's plenty of urgency on Robin Hood's part to rescue Marian and stop all the machinations from leading to King Richard's death.
It's a classic trope to use the evil twin, but a lot of fun. We even devised a way for the same actor to play both parts, until the end, when they actually both appear on stage together, thus making the audience do a double take.
Plus we have created a fun supporting cast that get more to do. Will Scarlet and Much wind up in the dungeon, in need of being rescued, and there's a young outlaw girl who has a crush on Robin, and gets quite jealous. As well, we have a female servant in the castle who is a spy for the outlaws.
Creating interesting women's roles in a male heavy concept was a lot of fun. And audiences love seeing the women being as handy in fights as the men.
AWW: You've discussed politics on your old radio show and in your book Red-State, White-Guy Blues. What do you think of the politics of the Robin Hood legend?
JM: I think that's why Robin Hood has endured. He's a man of the people, not the often corrupt law. And the idea of someone standing up to tyranny at his own personal risk is something we crave. Many modern super heroes fill that type of role (like Batman). In fact Robin Hood is kind of like the original literary super hero.
Our director from last year and this year, Michael Lilly, wanted to include some strong modern imagery, and had a young child in the cast who was being used as a prisoner pawn in last year's show, run up to the Sheriff, stop and defiantly look up at him, similar to a media image from last summer on the cover of Time magazine, of an immigrant child looking up at Donald Trump. This summer, in the dungeon, a couple of peasant children are seen locked in a cage, reminiscent of images we have been seeing over the past year, and related to that one from last year.
It's a nice touch, and a sad tribute to what is happening. I can't help but dream of a band of Robin Hood outlaws breaking into an immigrant detention facility and liberating those children, and how it would play in the news.
AWW: You've adapted several existing characters to the stage – Robin Hood, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and I gather King Arthur is upcoming. What challenges and rewards do you find in adapting these tales for the stage?
JM: When I was in my 20s and writing, it was all romantic comedies about relationships and things that were important to me at the time. I often would take my own romantic failings and make them into comedies.
Since then I've enjoyed doing research driven scripts, or adapting classics. Theatre is about putting butts in seats, and you can't deny that Robin Hood, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur kind of sell themselves to audiences. People know immediately what they are getting if you have those titles. It is more commercially viable. Plus it is fun to put my own stamp on those characters.
The challenge is to make it fresh, while also not departing too far from the concepts that audiences want. If you go too far, there's potential for backlash. And if you play it too safe, there's also critical backlash. So, it's a fine edge to have to walk.
With Robin Hood, we wanted to give people the classic character, while also building a world around him that was all ours. We have to let Robin be Robin, but can play around with characters we create, and some of the supporting roles.
The reward is when you have record-breaking audiences show up and love it.
AWW: In addition to writing, you're also an actor. How does your acting experience affect the writing process?
JM: Knowing all aspects of theatre are endlessly helpful. If you can think like an actor thinks when writing, it can make the flow of dialogue easier. Also, when I direct I try to come at it from a writer's standpoint, and when I write I come at it from a performer's stand point.
In writing, I see the performances in my head, and if I have actors I can assign to the roles, it becomes easy to use those actors's strengths to bring the characters to life.
AWW: What can you tell us about the Young Robin Hood comic book you have in the works with Phantomlight Designs?
JM: Last summer comic book legend Mike Grell did a poster for us that we were able to use to sell prints to the audience to raise money for local charities. We ended up raising around $2500 off those prints.
When Mike was in town last summer, he stopped in on a rehearsal, and did a comic shop appearance. At that appearance, a young artist came to meet him and share his work with Mike. Seeing it, I perked up a little. We had a Young Robin Hood script, and had always talked of doing comic book adaptations of our Robin Hood (which is still in the works).
Mike was encouraging to the artist, Han Strawderman (who goes by Phantomlight Designs), who was apparently in a bit of a slump. Han's mother came back to the comic shop a few days later when Mike was doing a second appearance, and told Mike that Han had been encouraged and inspired by Mike's advice, and was going to pursue art again.
This really touched me, and I called Robert Akers and told him we should do a comic book of Young Robin Hood adventures for next summer, and ask Han to draw it. Han had never done a proper comic book before, and we've worked closely with him through the process, which has been a learning one for all of us.
Luckily, I have been working with Mike Grell to bring back some of his creator-owned characters, and used Kickstarter to successfully re-launch Mike's Maggie The Cat. I'll also be using Kickstarter for the Young Robin project and others to follow.
AWW: And speaking of comics, this brings me to another shared interest of ours – the work of comic book artist/writer Mike Grell. You're up for an Eisner Award for your contributions to the biograpghy Mike Grell: Life Is Drawing Without An Eraser. What that experience been like?
JM: My first comic as a kid was a Mike Grell-drawn Superboy and The Legion of Super-Heroes comic. So his was the first art and artist I ever knew. I loved his stuff. So much so, that many others just didn't compare.
When I was becoming a writer in my teens in the 1980s, Mike's Jon Sable, and Green Arrow runs were heavily influential to me in how to tell compelling stories, and create great characters.
Fast forward nearly 30 years, and Mike and I became good friends after seeing him at several convention appearances, and spending time just hanging out with him. We really bonded, and I have to say that he is just one of the most incredible human beings I know.
Dewey Cassell was writing a book on Mike for Twomorrows Publishing, and I was put in touch with Dewey, who needed some help. He asked me to come onto the project and do some interviews.
I had interviewed Mike a couple of times for a podcast show I had when working as a talk radio host for iHeart Radio. I had also interviewed Mike's pal, actor Mark Ryan. So some of the content from those interviews were incorporated into the book. I also interviewed Mike Gold and Dan Jurgens for the book, and did some other features.
In no way was I prepared for the book to be nominated for an Eisner Award. I'm still in shock that I've been invited to San Diego Comic Con as a professional, and will be in that room at the awards ceremony with all these legends I've admired for decades.
AWW: What else are you working on at the moment?
JM: I'm always working on about a dozen ideas. Robert Akers (who has written a couple of novels) and I have a fantasy concept we are working on, as well as expanding Robin Hood. We hope to do serialized radio drama versions of our scripts in the coming year, as well as adapting it to comic book form, and any other format we can fit it into.
I mentioned a concept for a TV show to a film producer friend of mine, who took me far too seriously, and put together a film crew, which we took to Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC in June of 2019. Over a weekend we filmed a season's worth (12 episodes) of interviews for a show called "Issues With..." (think of it as "Inside The Actors Studio" but with comic creators). We interviewed Charles Vess, Brian Stelefreeze, Colleen Doran, Ron Randall, Karl Kessel, Tom Grummett, June Brigman, JM DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, Dean Trippe, Jeremy Whitely, Yanick Paquette, Greg LaRocque, and Neal Adams.
The entire season is now being edited together, and we have plans to go back next summer for another season. We already have Klaus Janson signed up as a guest for next year.
I will continue to work in theatre, and hopefully will get to do some acting later this year, as well as more directing.
And, if that's not enough, I'm editor and co-publisher for Masterstroke Studios, re-launching Mike Grell created comics as well as expanding to other things next year.
I'm like a kid again, with all these great things happening. I never planned on it ending up here, but I'm glad that it did.
AWW: Thanks, Jeff.
If you are interested in Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood. Jeff has put the 2018 production on his YouTube channel.
MIKE GRELL: LIFE IS DRAWING WITHOUT AN ERASER by Dewey Cassell with Jeff Messer. The career retrospective and artbook of legendary comic book creator Mike Grell. It includes interviews with Grell and fellow comics professionals around such work as Jon Sable: Freelance, Warlord, Green Arrow. The Legion of Super-Heroes, Shaman's Tears and even Mike Grell's adaptation of Howard Pyle's Robin Hood.
Buy Mike Grell: Life Is Drawing Without An Eraser (Limited Edition) on Amazon.com
Buy Mike Grell: Life Is Drawing Without An Eraser (Limited Edition) on Amazon.co.uk
Buy Mike Grell: Life Is Drawing Without An Eraser (Limited Edition) on Amazon.ca
RED-STATE, WHITE-GUY BLUES by Jeff Messer. A humourous but heartfelt look at the politics of North Carolina by radio host Jeff Messer.
Buy Red-state, White-guy Blues on Amazon.com
Buy Red-state, White-guy Blues on Amazon.co.uk
Buy Red-state, White-guy Blues on Amazon.ca