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The First Annual Bookburners Convention Turns Bookstore Work Into a Supernatural Romp

Actors rehearse The First Annual Bookburners Convention, premiering at Space55 on September 7.EXPAND
Actors rehearse The First Annual Bookburners Convention, premiering at Space55 on September 7.
John Perovich

Seven years ago, when Phoenix New Times contributor Ashley Naftule  worked at Half Price Books and later Zia Records, he accumulated enough character studies to make a compelling play about a bookstore. None of these book traders made the final cut of The First Annual Bookburners Convention, which opens at the Space 55 theater on Friday, September 7.

“We had one guy who used to come into Zia that looked like Hitler,” Naftule, who is now associate artistic director at Space 55, says with a mixture of admiration and confusion. “Very pleasant. Not only did he have the Chaplin mustache, but he had the swoop hair and he would come in late at night buy a bunch of random DVDs like Talladega Nights, nothing you'd look at as propaganda. We had people trying to sell us Valley Metro bus books. We had a Sherlock Holmes guy who'd come in sometimes with the deerstalker and the pipe.”

Had Naftule stayed in retail, the script might have stayed in its original vein as a take on Clerks, a story about slackers working at a bookstore and their wacky misadventures. “It slowly turned into a supernatural horror story. It's still a comedy but it turned into more like a Twilight Zone, Lovecraftian story.”

With an ensemble cast that includes Sky Donovan, Dayna Renée Donovan, Megan Holcomb, Amy Jean Page, and Marcella Grassa, and direction by Dennis Frederick, the play centers around “a guy named Francis, a mid-30s, an underachiever bookseller, and one day, one of his sketchier booksellers sells him this old book with language he can't decipher, and that ends up being highly coveted by a bunch of characters who are not entirely human. That's the MacGuffin that sets off the whole story.”

Naftule won't spoil what these unearthly creatures look like but gives props to the cast, including one actor whose non-human character is doing a pretty bad job of blending in. "It's really hard to tell an actor, 'be a bad actor on purpose.' You look at them and they don't know how to hold a cup or walk."

The First Annual Bookburners Convention, which began life in a Kim Porter playwriting workshop at Space 55, was the first project Naftule had ever worked on. It was also the first he shelved. "I put it in a drawer for a while; it was 200 pages and stupid long. When I went back years later to re-edit it, I got rid of four characters, two plotlines. A lot of my early writing had that cleverness trap, where I want to show how smart I am with my writing, which is a deadly impulse. I had a character in one of the early drafts that talks about plunderphonics and there's no reason for that to be in the story except to show people that I read an article on plunderphonics.”

This work predated Ear, the play Naftule wrote last year which is currently nominated for four 2018 AriZoni Awards, including Best Original Script, Best Production, Best Actor (Duane Daniels), and Best Director (Dennis Frederick).

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Ear was kind of a side project,” says Naftule. “I had this idea of a story about a guy who gives his girlfriend an ear as an anniversary present, and it was just one scene – I just kept adding to it. Ear was going to be a play about relationships and then it turned into a sci-fi." Ear enjoyed a 12-performance run as Space 55 was being evicted from its old, recently demolished location.

During the new play's run, Naftule might get some flashbacks from his time behind the counter sifting through, as he puts it "people's handed down memories." He might run into some old friends, like the woman who brought a Hefty bag full of Harlequin Romance paperbacks, oblivious that her dog had taken a dump in it before she made her way to the resale counter.

“I told her, ‘Look, we can't take these books, there's dog shit in this bag.’ And she said, “Can’t you work around it?”

The First Annual Bookburners Convention. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, September 7 to 30 at Space55, 1524 North 18th Avenue; space55.org. Tickets are $20 via space55.org.

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