Belle Fourche playwright’s script receives spotlight

“Slice of Life,” written by Derek Olson has been purchased to be performed after it was initially performed by the Belle Fourche High School one-act team, pictured here in 2016. Photo courtesy of Toi Flick

BELLE FOURCHE –– A local playwriter and director of dozens of local productions is celebrating an exciting success – the sale of a one-act script that was performed in 2016 in Belle Fourche.

Derek Olson, 37, has written nearly 26 scripts that have been performed in the Belle Fourche community, including many at the high school where he directed the drama department’s productions for a dozen years, and one of those has been selected to be performed.

In 2019, two of Olson’s productions were selected to be published by Scripts for Stage, a smaller online publishing company based in the United Kingdom. Then, last week, Olson found out that one of those play had been purchased to be performed.

“Right now, it’s something that I love doing, I love writing,” he said.

Olson, who is mostly self-taught, has been writing plays for nearly two decades. After graduating from the Belle Fourche High School in 2002, Olson pursued an education in animation from the Art Institute of Colorado in Denver.  

While attending college, in 2003 and 2004, Olson, wrote his first one-act play scripts for the Belle Fourche High School.

Following a break from writing, trying his hand at short films, Olson returned to playwriting in 2009 when the Belle Fourche High School hired him to lead its drama program. Since then, he has written seven full-length plays and 19 one-act plays for the high school and community theater.

Depending on the production type, Olson said he has spent between 20-60 hours, on average, transporting his idea from his mind to the stage. Still, having a production picked up by a publishing company has not been a painless process for Olson.

“Even though, yes … the scripts have been performed, they’ve been well received, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to … convince somebody else to do something with it,” he said.

After more than a year on the publishing website, Olson’s “Slice of Life” was purchased to be performed. Scripts for Stage, Olson said acts as a repository of scripts where performers or producers can search for a play they may be interested in performing. The performers then pay a licensing fee to utilize the script and the writer is paid royalties from the purchase.

“So, this will be my first actual (experience of) somebody paying for one of my scripts,” he said, adding the company may represent him for another eight scripts.

Of the more than two dozen scripts he’s written, Olson has produced each one, and later directed most of them on the stage. And all of them have been produced in his hometown of Belle Fourche.

Having directed his own scripts has given a leg up in the process, Olson said.

“… because then I can kind of see certain things that work or maybe don’t work, as well,” he said, adding he takes notes during the production and later tweaks the scripts to make the show easier to put on again later.

Olson said a couple of the scripts have been collaborations with other content creators, including his father.

“I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work with some really fun people,” he said.

He and his father began collaborating together on scripts when he was in high school, including some screenplays, Olson said. And once, when Olson was in college, the pair came close to breaking onto the Hollywood scene with one of his productions.

“A screenplay my dad and I wrote … one of my teachers, whose mom was a producer in Hollywood, was actually possibly interested in it at one point,” Olson said, adding that although the opportunity didn’t end up materializing, he was still excited by the potential.

Although Olson has always been interested in seeing other areas perform his plays, he credits his wife, Anna Robins, who is also a local artist, composer, and filmmaker, for pushing him to get his scripts professionally represented.

“My wife really encouraged me to do that,” he said.

The production, a one-act drama called “Slice of Life,” was performed by Belle Fourche high schoolers in 2016.

Cut to a diner in the middle of nowhere. The Slice of Life is a slightly different take on the biblical story of Job, the devil himself meets with a reporter and reveals to her that she is the subject of a parlay between himself and God about whether she will help herself or another.

“We got to go to state that year,” he said. “I think it was fairly successful; the kids did a great job with it, too.”

In addition to being a writer, Olson works in the marketing industry by day, and currently serves as the executive director for the Belle Fourche Area Community Theater group. At any given hour of the day, Olson, who describes himself of somewhat of a night own, is able to flex his creative muscles in a myriad of projects.

“They’re all kind of different elements of art,” he said. “I like new challenges; I like new things. I kind of like that I have a day job that is creatively fulfilling, I like doing the plays that which are creatively fulfilling in their own way, but then I get to do this which is also creatively fulfilling in its own kind of way.”

Olson said he tends to get bored easily when repetitively working on one type of project, prodding him to try his hand at a wide range of storytelling architypes.

“I feel like I’ve got a fairly diverse group of scripts that I’ve written over the years,” he said. “Getting to do a bunch of different (things) is kind of fun.”

Olson said his goal is to get more of his plays out there for public consumption, and hopefully, increase some royalties.

“The goal with it is, it’s not necessarily replacing my day jobs, but I have a lot of these scripts … that I’ve written,” he said. “So, I just kind of want to get them out there. I’m going to keep pushing.”

Looking to the future, Olson said he’d like to be able to write some scripts that he doesn’t intend to direct, hoping to somewhat free himself from some of the limitations that tend to box him in, creatively. When writing the majority of his scripts, he said they were very intentional, planned to fill a show need for either the high school drama or the community theater.

Olson said when he writes a script, he knows he’ll produce locally, he keeps certain things in mind, including stage limitations and intended audience. So, he works to some of the situational strengths and avoids other topics and elements that may not play out well on the available stage or related to a genre that he feels may not be well received by the local audience.

“(It would be) fun to work without restrictions in a way,” he said. “I don’t need to write it in this very specific manner to fit, it’s just this is a story I want to tell. If somebody else has the means to do it, great, then they can do it.”

Although he’s been able to explore some creative ideas for his local productions, Olson said it would be nice to try some things that interest him but are not necessarily things that everybody enjoys. For example, he said he really enjoys horror genre. But he is sensitive to the fact that it is not for everyone.

“That’s definitely on my horizon,” Olson said, adding that he still plans to continue writing shows to be produced in the area. Although he is unsure when and where the Slice of Life will be performed, Olson he hopes to find out soon.

“It literally could be anyway; they’re an international company,” he said.

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