Jim Hesselman spent several years writing “The Bunco Squad,” sporadically picking the script back up to work on it and then often letting it rest for a bit. The comedy-drama that revolves around eight women’s monthly dice game is now slated to open at Derby Dinner Playhouse on January 10.
The play, which runs through Feb. 18 at the theater in Clarksville, is a tale of tight-knit friendship and the joy and tribulations that come along with it. And that’s what has kept Hesselman engaged and returning to the story.
“I think just the idea of, whether it’s women or men or anybody, a small group of close friends feeling comfortable with each other when they have something to eat and a few drinks and they’re relaxing and they’re blowing off steam, there is a lot of humor to be had in that, and a lot of heart,” Hesselman said.
Based on “a little clan of people,” Hesselman said that the audience will relate to — or find a personality that they recognize in one of the characters — as “The Bunco Squad” features characters from all backgrounds and all walks of life.
Hesselman — who compares the play to “Steel Magnolias” — said that he keeps a file of scripts that he’s writing, some of which don’t ever see a stage or even a reading, but “The Bunco Squad” was interesting enough to stick with.
“The ones that I go back to every once in a while and look through, and I can’t even remember it’s me that’s writing it — when I go back to notebooks and don’t even recognize my own handwriting. And you go, ‘That’s horrible,’ and you throw it out. This ended up being ok. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I can add to that, I can add to that.’ And finally, you go, ‘How do I get from here to here? And what’s the ending going to be?’ And once that structure is clear, it’s pretty easy to write.”
But, he knew he had something special when the eight women who were in the play were crying during an early table reading.
“And I was like, ‘Ok, this works,’” Hesselman said.
From The Beginning
Derby Dinner Playhouse opened in 1974 under out-of-town management, but General Manager Carolyn Thomas purchased the theater with her partner Bekki Jo Schneider in 1985, eventually growing the audience to about 200,000 patrons per year.
The Playhouse is known for its productions of Broadway musicals, comedies and children’s theatre, as well as original works such as “The Bunco Squad” created from the ground up in-house.
The rare thing about the business is how many people have spent long-term careers working at Derby Dinner Playhouse, which is not common in an industry where actors and writers are generally bouncing from gig to gig.
Hesselman, who has been with the Playhouse for more than 30 years, said a core group of creatives were given unmatched stability there. When he was starting out, Hesselman said that he not only acted and worked on the productions, but he also waited tables, which all together provided a nice income.
“It became this company that afforded people, even from out-of-town, to have kids, have a relationship, build a house — that was very unique,” Hesselman said.
Cary Wiger, who has been with the Playhouse for almost 40 years, agreed.
“Bekki Jo had this idea, that she wanted to create an acting company where people could actually settle down, buy a house, have a life,” Wiger said. “And she wanted to form that company, so she didn’t have to go out and audition for every new show that came along also, I think.”
Wiger started out just acting at Derby Dinner Playhouse. Then, in his second year, he became a Barnstormer — the group of eight people who perform the pre-show. He eventually became the director of the Barnstormers (now called the Footnotes) and the MC of the theater, while also working in sales. He’s now partly retired but still does shows here and there.
“It was a great little gig,” Wiger said. “I loved to not have to audition every six weeks.”
With a new arts district popping up near the Playhouse in Clarksville and 11,000 season ticket holders, Wiger said that the future looks bright.
He also appreciates how the theater has evolved over the years.
In the past couple to several years, they’ve been trying to do something a little edgier once in a while that normally wouldn’t be considered dinner theater,” Wiger said.
‘We Recognize These Characters’
In “The Bunco Squad,” actor Tina Jo Wallace plays Allison, a character she, on a personal level, doesn’t have much in common with, which is exactly what attracted her to the challenge of taking the role.
Allison embraces the chaotic, wild and free side of life, as the person in the friend group who is always searching for romance, yet always keeps people at a careful distance.
Wallace said that Allison has been a fun role for her to play, and, in general, the characters at large in “The Bunco Squad” are enticing, mostly because they’re relatable.
“We recognize these characters,” Wallace said. “We know these women…If you come to this play, you’re going to see somebody you know, or you’re going to see yourself, which is super fun. There’s that, that these characters are relatable. And I love when you can laugh at a show and when you can also cry, and he’s got that in there. There are tender moments.”
“There’s laughter, there’s tears, there’s communion, there’s fighting,” she continued. “All of those elements.”
Jim Hesselman not only wrote the play, but he’s also directing it. That’s a tough thing to do, both Hesselman and Wallace acknowledged, as a writer and a director generally offer each other a set of checks and balances, but they both said that rehearsals have been excellent, with the characters and the story growing in new ways.
“It takes a special kind of person to write and direct a show,” Wallace said. “A lot of times, that’s not a good idea, because the writer is so attached to what they’ve written that they aren’t able to be open to change. But Jim is just the perfect person to be doing this. This is the third time I’ve worked on a new show with him and he is just very open, he’s very humble, he trusts his artists. He’s helping us to create these characters and he’s also allowing our creations to affect his writing.”
The 50th season of Derby Dinner Playhouse is set to begin this summer. In the meantime, make sure to catch “The Bunco Squad,” which runs from Wednesday, January 10 to Sunday February 18, 2024. Tickets can be purchased at derbydinner.com or by calling 812-288-8281. Single tickets run between $42-$51 depending on the day and showtime.