Des Moines playwright Karen Schaeffer wrote her first script at age 49. Now she's ready for 'Girls' Weekend' sequel

Isaac Hamlet
Des Moines Register

Karen Schaeffer was 49 when she decided to write her first play.

While maintaining her day job at Iowa PBS, she blazed through her first full-length script — "Girls' Weekend" — in about two weeks. The play has since been performed across the country and abroad and has a sequel in the works.

"I decided that I was really unhappy with the parts that were being created for women in my age group," said Schaeffer. "The roles that were coming out were like mom roles or quirky aunt roles... I’d go in and audition and they’d say, ‘You don’t look like a mom.’”

She said she thought to herself, "OK, you can either complain about it or you can do something about it."

She started writing, and, in two weeks, completed a first draft of "Girls' Weekend." 

Playwright Karen Schaeffer poses for a photo at Stoner Theater at the Des Moines Civic Center in Des Moines on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021.

The comedy follows four Iowa women as they spend a weekend in the woods, drinking wine and talking about books, before a wrench is thrown into the weekend with the arrival of their romantic partners.

This results in a cavalcade of physical comedy and humor of the sort Schaeffer, now 60, wished she found more readily in scripts. Raised on the humor of "The Three Stooges," Bugs Bunny and the Marx Brothers, Schaeffer sought to create roles for women in that vein of comedy.

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Seven years since the Des Moines world premiere of that original romantic comedy, Schaeffer has penned more than half a dozen other scripts including the soon-to-be-staged sequel to "Girls' Weekend."

She remains prolific, with two new scripts headed to stages in 2022 and three others continuing to find new audiences worldwide, making her one of the Des Moines Register's 15 People to Watch in 2022

'You need to take another look at this'

The Texas-born Schaeffer started performing in the theater at age 11. In a way, it's what led her to Des Moines since she met her husband, local actor and radio personality Max Schaeffer, while participating in community theater in Victoria, Texas.

He convinced her to move to Iowa and, when she started writing "Girls' Weekend," he gave her candid feedback.

“Can I be honest?” he asked her after reading it, the Register reported in 2014. “It’s a really, really funny play, but it needs some work. You have to hear somebody reading it. You have to get an editor, somebody you trust.”

Schaeffer would end up working with Kathy Pingel, director of the first "Girls' Weekend" and the forthcoming "Girls' Weekend 2," as part of her writing process, with Pingel offering edits and critiques.

Schaeffer also managed to get a reading of the script at the Des Moines Playhouse, which resulted in the "Girls' Weekend" being added to the venue's main season in 2014. The theater group typically reads through several plays once a month, with actors invited in to read parts. More than 150 people showed up for this reading. 

“John Viars, who was the artistic director [for the Playhouse] at the time, basically committed at that moment to put it on the main stage and I think that was because of the electricity in the room." said Pingel, recalling an early reading for the first "Girls' Weekend." 

When it debuted, "Girls' Weekend" was the first fully original production staged at the playhouse since "From the Window: The World of Anne Frank" in 1998 by another local writer, Cynthia Mercati.

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The play went on to be published through Dramatic Publishing based in Woodstock, Ill., in 2017, at the urging of members of the Des Moines theater scene.

"It actually went to Dramatic Publishing and they first turned it down," Pingel said. "Rod McCullough, who was the managing director at the Playhouse, called them up and said, ‘You need to take another look at this.’”

Dramatic Publishing went on to accept the script.

Matthew McIver, artistic director of Iowa Stage Theatre Co., said it was an impressive feat to write a quality farce — which tend to be technically and physically demanding — as a first play. He said he wholeheartedly believes that the sequel to "Girls' Weekend," is one of the best comedies to hit the stage.

"To write a good farce at all is very rare, and to write a good farce that's funny is the needle-in-a-haystack kind of rare," McIver said. "As a debut play, it's remarkable on a lot of levels.”

Five different plays perform in five different theaters

Schaeffer's writing career took off from there, with five plays performed in five different venues for the 2021-2022 theater season.

Iowa Stage Theatre Co. plans to debut "Girls' Weekend 2," which brings back the characters and cast members of its predecessor. The play opens April 29, 2022, in downtown Des Moines' Stoner Theater with performances through May 15.

In 2021, Schaeffer was among a handful of playwrights to have an original piece staged as part of the American Association of Community Theatre NewPlayFest 2022, a biennial contest focused on staging and publishing new work.

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Her play, "Unpacking Mother," which follows two sisters sorting through the effects of their recently deceased mom, will have its world premiere at the Market House Theatre in Paducah, Kentucky, just two months before "Girls' Weekend 2" takes the stage in Des Moines.

“Karen, in a very short span of time, has covered a large range of styles, tones, genres," said McIver, who's also booked Schaeffer for  ISTC's scriptease play readings, a series that focuses on showcasing new plays from Iowa writers.

'Pretty much the Holy Grail'

When McIver heard that "Girls' Weekend 2" was in the works, he quickly secured the world premiere for his theater company. Once able to go through the script for himself, he was elated to find "Girls' Weekend 2" worked as a strong and funny play on its own.

“As an artistic director, it’s very hard to find comedies and it’s very hard to find great comedies," McIver told the Register in November, "and to find great comedies that are funny is pretty much the Holy Grail.”

"Girls' Weekend 2" brings back the same cast that debuted the original. The plot starts with an upcoming wedding, spurring those familiar characters to host an epic bachelorette party at the cabin seen in the first play.

The years between the original production and the follow-up have not dampened the enthusiasm of its participants. 

“For me, it’s a chance to hone a skill that I know I probably have... I just haven’t really gotten a chance to use it," said returning performer Becky Scholtec of the more slapstick scenes her character, Meg, acts out in the sequel. She decided to move back an elective surgery originally scheduled in March so she could perform the part. 

As a Des Moines resident for most of her life, Schaeffer attributes her growing resume of plays to people like Scholtec and Pingel, McIver and Viars — current and former central-Iowans who read her work and became willing to fight for it. 

“I can’t do what I do anywhere else in the country because of the generosity of Iowans," Schaeffer said.

About Karen Schaeffer

AGE: 60

LIVES: Des Moines

EDUCATION: Attended Texas State University.

CAREER: Executive secretary to Molly Phillips at Iowa PBS.

FAMILY: Schaeffer has two adult children, Alex and Jon Schaeffer, with her husband Max Schaeffer.

About the Des Moines Register's 2022 People to Watch

It has become a Register tradition to close out each year and open the next by introducing readers to 15 People to Watch — individuals expected to make an impact on Iowa in the coming year.

This year's nominations from readers and our journalists totaled nearly 70 people and posed hard decisions for staff members charged with winnowing them to just 15.

The final 15 include people in business and the arts, those who work with small children and climb mountains, those who argue for a living and those who deliver much-needed care. We hope that you are as inspired by reading about them as we were in profiling them. 

Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Des Moines Register. Reach him at ihamlet@gannett.com or (319) 600-2124, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.