East Peoria Community High School graduate and former local community theater veteran G. William Zorn isn’t on the same level as Tina Fey by a long shot. But you could say he’s had his brush with the big time.
That’s because in 2010 the Kennedy Center recognized both Tina Fey and Zorn for achievements in comedy.
Certainly the scale of achievement was different: Fey won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor thanks to her overall body of comedic work – everything from “Saturday Night Live” to “30 Rock” and her film endeavors such as “Mean Girls” and “Date Night.”
Zorn, on the other hand, won the Mark Twain Prize for Comic Playwrighting at the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival for “Metropolis Has No Superman,” which will be staged next weekend at Corn Stock’s Winter Lab Theatre.
Still, both Fey and Zorn have the iconic Mark Twain attached to their names – no little achievement in the case of Zorn, whose script beat out about 200 submissions for the honor, which included a trip to the national festival, a $2,500 cash prize and playwrighting residency with a professional theater company.
“Metropolis Has No Superman” unfolds in the Illinois town of Metropolis – official hometown of DC Comics’ Superman – and revolves around a gifted, yet conflicted, comic book creator named Chance, who has a falling out with his father, who dies in a freak accident.
Part of the problem is that Chance is gay (and the creator of the “Queer Boy” comic series). But the bigger problem is that Chance’s dad feels that he has long been playing second fiddle to the imaginary comic book characters in his son’s life.
The play isn’t just about father-son estrangement, however; it’s also about how family members are sometimes intimate strangers who learn to understand one another with difficulty and pain. The work grew out of a thesis for Zorn’s master’s of fine arts in playwrighting at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Currently, Zorn is studying for a Ph.D. at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“I tell you, the real sort of excitement came when I learned that Tina Fey won the other Mark Twain Prize,” Zorn said. “This year the two people who won the Mark Twain Prize for comedy at the Kennedy Center was me, this sort of nobody playwright from Kalamazoo, Mich., and Tina Fey. I didn’t have a big TV special accepting the award like she did with Betty White. It’s something I can really milk when I’m out of this Ph.D. program and looking for a job.”
Zorn, now 41, grew up in East Peoria, graduating from East Peoria Community High School in 1987 and going on to Illinois Central College to earn an associate’s degree in communication in 1990. A bachelor’s degree followed at Eastern Illinois University in 1992. Along the way he appeared on the stages of Corn Stock Theatre and Peoria Players and worked at Children’s Community Theatre.
“I have been a professional actor for 20-plus years,” Zorn said. “I got into theater because I liked the idea of people paying to see me do something entertaining. For whatever my personality deficiencies, I liked being the center of attention. I did lots of tours, lots of productions in Chicago, Seattle. Then about 1997-ish I was in Chicago. I was sort of getting tired of the roles I was being offered. I was always the funny fat guy. But there’s only so many times you can play Nicely Nicely in ‘Guys and Dolls’ before you’re bored with it.”
So Zorn started writing his own plays. In 1997 he wrote a short play called “Poetry,” which he sent to a gay and lesbian theater festival in New York. The novice writer was pleasantly surprised that the festival wanted to perform the piece.
“I was excited by that,” Zorn said. “The first play I had committed to paper and somebody wanted to do it.”
“Metropolis Has No Superman” was inspired by a visit to the real-life town of Metropolis, which sits on the Ohio River on the southern most tip of Illinois. In 1972, DC Comics declared the little town of 6,400 or so the official “Home of Superman.”
“I saw the 12-foot Superman in front of the courthouse,” Zorn said. “And then you travel a few blocks down the street and you see the 24-foot Green Grocer in front of Big John’s Super Store. And I started thinking about the competition between these two statues and what would have brought that about. Being from Illinois, I thought my thesis play should be related to my roots, my upbringing. So I started from there.”
Director Sean Howell put out a call for a new short play for Corn Stock’s annual theater festival but did not receive many submissions. Since Zorn already had contacted Howell about “Metropolis,” Howell decided to go ahead with the piece even though it was a full-length work instead of a short piece. (A brief play, “Context,” by community theater veteran Laura Swantner Johnson also will be staged. The piece has no speaking and is a spoof on texting.)
Despite its serious themes, Howell said, the play is quite funny.
“For an audience to recognize something as very funny you have to temper it with something else,” Zorn said. “You have to show them the other side.”
Zorn’s goals include finishing his Ph.D. program and eventually leading his own playwrighting program. He wanted the play staged in Peoria partly so his mother – who hasn’t seen any of his plays – could see it.
“I’m glad to be bringing something back to Peoria after being gone for so long,” Zorn said. “It inevitably happens every couple of years that I’ll go home for the holidays, and I’ll see someone in the supermarket and they’ll say something to the effect of ‘I thought you were dead. Somebody said you were dead.’ No, I’m not dead. I’ve just been moving, living all over the country and working as an actor.”
Gary Panetta can be reached at 686-3132 or [email protected]
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO PHONE BOOTHS?
– What: “Metropolis Has No Superman,” a original play by former community theater performer G. William Zorn. The play won the Mark Twain Award from the Kennedy Center. Also playing is “Context,” a short one-act by Laura Swantner Johnson.
– When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 21-22, 27-29. Also 2:30 p.m. Jan. 23.
– Where: Corn Stock Winter Playhouse, Upper Bradley Park.
– Tickets: General admission is $10 for adults, $7 for students (with ID). Call 676-2196.