Carol Hughes, a longtime Wichita radio personality, has been writing slapstick satirical melodramas for nearly as long as the 15 years she’s been at KFDI-FM 101.3.
“You find something you like and you stay with it,” Hughes says of her job as music director and midday personality from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the country music station.
The same goes for her hobby of script-writing, which after 14 years has produced about 25 knee-slappers with such titles as “Desperate Housewives of Sedgwick County,” “The Witches of Eastborough,” “Admiral Windwagon Smith: Vampire Hunter,” “Little Cookie Shop of Horrors” and her latest, “John Wayne’s World,” which opens Thursday and runs through Sept. 6 at Mosley Street Melodrama in Old Town.
“I always start with the title and then everything else just falls into place. ‘John Wayne’s World’ struck me as such a funny name that I knew I had to give it a shot,” said Hughes, who usually averages two scripts a year but has churned out four over the past 12 months.
Hughes is one of about half a dozen local writers who contribute scripts for the six shows that Mosley Street Melodrama does every year, and second in productivity to only actor, director and longtime theater teacher Tom Frye.
Patty Reeder, who co-founded the theater 17 years ago with Scott Noah and is now sole owner, admits that her shows are comfortably formulaic.
“People know they can rely on us to give them a good time. They know what they’re getting. We are dependable mindless humor,” Reeder says. “There is a formula with heroes, heroines, villains and vamps. You can boo and hiss and throw popcorn at the villain. But we also ad lib a lot with the audience, so every show is different. That’s why there’s a lot of repeat business. There’s nothing else like us.”
Playwright Hughes agrees that there is a fair amount of formula, or rather, a list of requirements to fit the Mosley ideal. Each 45- to 50-minute “mellerdrammer” is crafted for six actors, although, Hughes says, there can be many more characters, depending upon how fast the six can quick-change into a new personality.
“Basically, we need a good guy and a bad guy, a good gal and a bad gal, some conflict and a resolution,” the writer said. “But within that format, there are endless ways to tell your story.”
For Hughes, that means throwing in satirical swipes at current events, both local and national, and mixing them with cliches from popular movies and television.
“Local audiences like the local references, but you can’t do too many because there are always people coming from out of town who wouldn’t get them,” Hughes said about lessons learned from a past show called “East Side West Side Story” about the age-old rivalry between the east and west sides of Wichita.
Even though local references might be sharply funny, Hughes said she is careful not to be mean-spirited. The idea is to tickle, not bludgeon. She doesn’t want to create a situation like the one earlier this year when Haysville officials protested being the butt of Gridiron jokes.
“I’ve used all the towns around here for settings, like Goddard, Belle Plaine, Bel Aire. I think they’re all fair game. But I guess I’ll stay away from Haysville for awhile because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says.
At the melodrama, the actors are allowed – nay, encouraged – to break the fourth wall and banter directly with audience members. How lively the show is often depends upon how active the audience becomes to playing along.
“It feels real improvisational because we have such great actors,” Hughes said. “But I would guess that 95 percent of it is actually scripted.”
Starring in “John Wayne’s World” are Michael Karraker as the titular hero, a local boy who made it big in Hollywood and has come back home for a visit. Kyle Vespestad plays Garth, John’s best friend growing up.
Megan Parsley is Cindy Ella (yes, like Cinderella, wink-wink), who is bullied by her mean stepbrother, Tom Cheney (named after the villain in “True Grit” although spelled and pronounced like the Kansas town), and his acid-tongued wife, Liz, played by Dylan Lewis and Briley Meek. Jenny Mitchell is Stacy, a sort of creepy “stalker chick” who complicates John’s visit.
“Mosley has such an amazing stable of actors that I write the parts to show off what they can do. I wrote the John Wayne part specifically for Michael because he’s very good at doing voices. He’s so good that I have him do several voices as undercover characters,” Hughes said.
“And Kyle is such a brilliant comedian with such good timing that I could hear his voice in my head as I was writing the lines.”
Hughes said she employs all types of humor, from sight gags to puns to one-liners to pratfalls. She doesn’t really have a favorite approach.
“I do ’em all. I like to take the story to unexpected places. Some lines will get huge laughs and others just little giggles. I try to find the right balance,” she said. “You don’t want just big laughs. If the audience is laughing the whole time, they won’t hear the show.”