Much of playwright Bert V. Royal's work takes place in high school — angsty teens trying to find their way, with themes surrounding social standing, lust and downright pain. It's ironic, considering that Royal himself never attended public high school. Growing up in Green Cove Springs, he was homeschooled from the ninth grade through graduation.
Today, Royal lives in Los Angeles and has a blossoming film-writing career. He wrote the 2010 comedy "Easy A," starring Emma Stone, Penn Badgley and Amanda Bynes, and the 2012 made-for-TV-movie "Joey Dakota," featuring Amber Stevens and Scott Wolf.
Royal was born in Colorado; his family moved to the Mandarin area of Jacksonville when he was 5. He attended Loretto Elementary and Mandarin Middle School. At age 12, the Royal family relocated to Green Cove Springs.
"I love Jacksonville," Royal, now 35, said.
"I was fortunate to have parents who would take me to see shows and community theater productions," he said. "I got a good healthy dose of theater."
After a two-and-a-half-year stint at St. Johns River State College Florida School of the Arts in Palatka from 1995-'98, Royal moved to New York City. He was involved in casting shows like "Third Watch" and "Chappelle's Show" until quitting to become a writer. One of Royal's first successful scripts was for "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead."
This month, Royal returns home for the first Jacksonville staging of "Dog Sees God" at Players by the Sea. The play, which premiered off-Broadway in 2005, is an "unauthorized parody" that imagines what the characters from the comic strip "Peanuts" would be like as teenagers.
Press material explains "drug use, suicide, eating disorders, teen violence, rebellion, sexual relations and identity are among the issues covered in this drama." The theater recommends the content is suitable for audiences 16 and older.
"It's the only thing that I've never been able to step away from," Royal said. "It's my baby — my first-born."
Over the past nine years, the play has been performed across the country — in 48 out of 50 states, to be exact. It won the 2004 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Off-Off-Broadway Play and the 2006 HX Award for Best Off-Broadway Play.
"Having not gone to high school, I was an outsider looking in," Royal said. "I think it gave me a better vantage point. To me, high school is a fantasy world."
When Players by the Sea contacted Royal to say they were putting on a production of "Dog Sees God," he was elated. "I've been waiting for this for nine years," he said. "It's out of my hands as far as the interpretation of the material, but I love going to watch it as an audience member."
"Dog Sees God" will run on PBTS' Studio Stage, with Bradley M. Akers directing a young cast, featuring Devin Reardon (CB), Tyler Ramirez (Beethoven), Katie Sacks (CB's Sister), Jay Cobian (Van), Pablo Milla (Matt), Lindsay Curry (Van's sister), Hannah Morgan (Tricia) and Abby Gomez (Marcy).
Royal will attend the June 14 show; he'll conduct a question-and-answer session with the audience afterward. He said he is thrilled with the theater's decision to donate all proceeds from the June 19 production to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization founded by Shepard's parents after he was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in 1998.
"That makes me happier than anything else," he said.
Even though Royal has seen his play performed all over the country, there's something particularly sweet, he said, about seeing it staged in his hometown.
"This is a very controversial play. It takes guts to put it on anywhere. I just hope it speaks to people and helps the community grow."