Life and Afterlife of a Play

Sometimes you hear The Call and are compelled to your destiny.

 

And sometimes you hear The Call and hang up on it —because the message sounds garbled and the Voice of Destiny bears a strange resemblance to Phyllis Diller the morning after she went through all the cheap champagne alone.

 

That’s pretty much the way I felt about requests from high school drama teachers to chop my magnum opus RADIUM GIRLS to smithereens for the sake of some obscure forensics competition in Texas. Please. Can’t you recognize my genius? You want to cut my play to 40 minutes? Not only that you want me to read your cutting and approve it? Why don’t you just pick up a pencil and stab me in the eye? Haven’t I suffered enough? But in a moment of weakness – or maybe after a glass of champagne, I don’t remember – (might have been chardonnay, come to think of it)  I told high school drama teacher Steven Barker (yes that one, the evil one)  that I would adapt the play for high school drama competition. Forty—okay, forty-three-and-a-half—minutes of pure gold, just for you Steve. And because I never could say no to a cute guy, I also found myself high-tailing it to Camp LeJeune for a long weekend in late September and working with his students for two days to run through and tighten the script.

An expression of appreciation from Camp Lejeune

An expression of appreciation from Camp Lejeune

 

While I was there I also conducted a playwriting workshop for a number of the students. (This actually was more fun that writing the adaptation). For my trouble I was rewarded with this coin (see the photo) by the headmaster of the school—in appreciation of my service–and well-fed by parents and friends who turned out to see the full run-through on Saturday afternoon. And it was a blast! The kids were terrific—driven and dedicated– and by Steven’s report gob-smacked hysterically excited to have the writer actually show up and watch them work. And because I was able – at Steven’s suggestion — to find an angle on which to hang the shorter version, the adaptation came fast and sure.

 

Radium Girls is the story of the dialpainters who were poisoned while painting watch dials with radium-laced paint in the 1920s. The original is a big, sprawling, epic story replete with Brechtian devices and comic interludes to provide some relief amid the pathos. It is written for ten actors to double into nearly 40 parts—which explains why the play had a short life in professional theatre but has a long run on amateur stages, with nearly 300 productions in high schools, universities, and community theaters throughout the United States and abroad.  When Steven first approached me about the adaptation, I thought it would be impossible to condense the entire scope of the action—which covers 10 years in the original— into 40 minutes. I found out differently ….

 

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Bring Me the Head of Steven Barker

Let’s just get this straight from the top: I have nothing against Steven Barker. From everything I’ve seen he is a perfectly nice person, teaching drama to kids at Camp Lejeune and generally staying out of trouble. Except that he caused me untold misery over the past 10 days by suggesting that if I wrote a competition version of Radium Girls, he and his students would produce it this fall.  I don’t know any playwright who can resist those three precious words “I will produce,” so I set to it—and I am in pain.

The Evil One

The Evil One

 

Setting to it means I’ve had to exhume the bones of a play I wrote 15 years ago and try to find a way to cut a two-hour-and-twenty minute epic that spans 10 years, involves 38 characters and relies on a clever lighting designer into a 40-minute one-act suitable for high school drama performance in a festival setting.

 

Steven is not the first to suggest that I do this, but he is the first director to promise a tangible result if I did. And having dived into the wreck, I recall now that there is a reason why I’ve ignored this suggestion for years. Because it’s a damn miserable thing to go over a play you thought of as finished and realize—-uh, no.. Understand that when you set out to write a full-length play you flatter yourself that you’ll create an uncuttable script– so airtight, so carefully crafted, so beautifully rendered that you can’t cut a word without sacrificing something essential. Understand that you are deluded. Radium Girls is a pretty good piece, but it isn’t flawless and sifting through it I see plenty of places to cut. But rendering it into a 40-minute version goes beyond cutting – that’ involves a rethinking.

 

Steven called me in June, a couple of weeks (all right, months) after I had promised my publisher the same thing. I’d been peppered with so many requests from high school drama teachers to approve this cutting or that cutting, that my editor thought it would make plenty of sense for me to do my own cutting, particularly since I’d suggested a blanket order that anyone who wanted to perform the play for competition could either do complete, selected scenes, or not do it at all. I had no interest in slogging through the chop jobs offered me by various drama teachers – and each one would have required my specific approval, which meant sitting down and reading what they thought could go. No. So I said to hell with it, but something happened this year to make me change my mind.

 

A community theatre troupe in Massachusetts recently scored a big hit with a cutting I had agreed to more than a year before–either in a moment of weakness or inspiration, I am not sure which. In part, I thought the director had a pretty good handle on it and in part I thought it could mean more exposure in a frankly more lucrative market. (Turns out I was right about that.) Let’s face it, community theatre runs of three to four weeks are routine. Most high schools do two or three performances at the most—and the difference in royalties is ten-fold.

 

So, yes, I made a crassly commercial calculation, but there’s an artistic impulse behind my decision to do my own one-act version of the play—I get to shape the results, and nothing stops me from writing new material.  And nothing says that the one-act version has to cover the same ground as the full-length. But I asked Steven what it was about the play that he found so compelling—and he told me that he liked the character of the company president, a man who makes terrible moral compromises but also suffers from it. He liked the aspect of regret.

 

And he suggested that the one-act begin where the full-length ends, with the character of Arthur Roeder wandering through the graveyard in Orange, struggling to justify his misdeeds to his daughter. This gave me an immediate frame—but instead of opening in the cemetery, the one act opens in the condemned factory, with Roeder going back for one last look before the building is to be torn down. Now this of course messes with the chronology even more than I did in the original, because the building was still standing in 1999 when I wrote the play – but it serves my purpose dramatically.

 

This frame also positions the corporate man as the story-teller, and the story is his effort to rationalize his immoral choices to his adult daughter. He fails to do so to his own satisfaction, even though she ultimately dismisses his sins—it is also clear she never fully understands the magnitude of them and like so many of us, prefers to brush it all off rather than confront her own culpability—the way we are all culpable as consumers of ill-gotten goods.

 

Steven and his students will sit down with the script in September. I’m eager to hear what he thinks.

Salvation Road at PTNJ

 

On March 15, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey will feature a reading of Salvation Road as part of its ‘Forum Soundings’ series, focused on youth-centered theatre. This is the latest step in an ongoing development process for the play, which originated as a one-act at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2009, was workshopped at New York University and the Utah University Youth Theatre, produced at NYU in October and at Walden Theatre in November and is due for another production at Seton Hill University in April.

I sat down with  Jennifer DeWitt of PTNJ for a brief interview. The interview and more details about the series  can be found at PTNJ’s blog.

 

1.       What inspired you to write “Salvation Road?”

Originally a friend of mine who was active in what was then known as the Cult Awareness Network commissioned a play about the cult experience. I agreed to write the play, which I had intended as an “issue” play for theatres that tour to schools. But I didn’t really like the results; it was didactic and a bit predictable. So I tossed it in a drawer and did other things. Then in 2008 the successor organization to CAN–now called the International Cultic Studies Association–was holding a conference in Philadelphia and my friend wanted to present the play there. I went into a panic because I just did not like the script, but by then I had decided to take a different attack on the subject matter–which was to write about the people who are left behind, trying to make sense of what is going on. I had some experience with that–my sister was involved briefly in the Unification Church a number of years ago–and so I drew on a few details that I remembered from that time. So for me the play is really about the brother who is confused by his sister’s rejection of the family and trying to make sense of her need for an organization like the Disciples.

 

2.       You write in a variety of styles and genres. Do you let the subject matter dictate this or do you wake-up and say “today I plan to write a historical drama therefore I must find a subject?”

Plays for me are about wrestling with a question or an observation. The inspiration comes from all sorts of places–something I read in a newspaper or online, a book I’m reading, a photograph or an anecdote–even a painting or sketch I see in a gallery. I come across something that triggers a question. With Radium Girls, the immediate trigger was a chapter in a book on mass media that I came across online. I read the story of the New Jersey case and thought “How could this happen? Why does it keep on happening?” And I developed an obsession with the story. I knew starting out that the play was going to deal with the uses of denial in some way. But then I set out to do my research and in the process realized that I also wanted to tell the story from two points of view—the women in the factory and the men who owned the company.  It was a long struggle to come to a structure that worked, because it was an early play and I was not really confident in myself to do the story justice. But really I borrowed from Brecht, working in presentational scenes with more naturalistic scenes—and advancing the action in an almost cinematic way. So Radium Girls is really Epic Theatre.

 

Most of the other plays I’ve written are historical in nature–period pieces–though I am starting to write contemporary stories. And while in many cases the exchanges between characters are naturalistic—the structure usually isn’t; there is usually some element to the construction of the play that departs from 20th Century Realism. One artistic director described me as an “impressionist.” And I think that is largely true–certainly was true of The Good Daughter. There, the idea was to approach the scenes like photographs in a family album–that as you flip through the pages and through the years–a story emerges–and there are great leaps in time between the photographs, but you ultimately get a sense of an arc and a resolution.

 

I am drawn to period pieces because, like Shakespeare, I think audiences needs to look backward in order to look at themselves. You put some distance between the experience of contemporary audiences and the story you are telling them—and they can receive it better, especially if you are delivering a fairly harsh critique wrapped in the form of entertainment.

 

But I’m also interested in finding a shape or an approach that suits the material—and how this comes about is a bit of mystery. I sit with the idea or the characters for a while sometimes before the answer comes. Salvation Road is essentially a buddy movie on stage–two guys hit the road looking for a girl. And the structure is cinematic because the audience I am aiming at is used to receiving information in short bits; they are used to film and video and online entertainment and gaming–and that informs the way the play is put together. The newest piece I am working on now is a mash-up between a social satire and a murder mystery–with no solution to the mystery, which I am sure will really infuriate the audience. So it starts out as a comedy and gets darker as it goes. More and more I guess I am interested in bending forms—taking very familiar forms and working in that framework to force the audience to adopt a point of view it might not otherwise adopt. So I think the work is subtle in that respect—and I like to think it’s subversive. That’s what I tell myself.

 

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From STEM to STEAM: Putting the ‘Art’ Back in Science Education

On Saturday Feb. 23 I crossed something off my bucket list–and was a keynote speaker at the 2013 Theatre in Our Schools Mini-Conference in Richmond, a project of the Virginia membership of the American Alliance for Theatre & Education. Organizer Steven Barker invited me to speak on the topic of incorporating the arts into other core education courses. Here’s what I had to say:

 

Steven asked me to join you today to think through a most intriguing question: How can we transform STEM to STEAM? Or more to the point how can  that missing “A” can be incorporated into—and actually enhance—the teaching of  other core subjects?

 

STEM as we know is an initiative to emphasize SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, ENGINEERING, and MATH in the classroom.

 

For lovers and teachers of the arts—all manner of art—-the fact that music, painting, dance, theatre—even literature—is missing from this initiative is not just an unfortunate oversight, it is troubling evidence of an attitude that pervades our culture, which is that the arts are secondary—extraneous, fluff, unimportant—while science and technology are essentials.

Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatour

 

To believe that is to be blind to the role of the arts not just in education but in our very lives. As theatre artists, we know that the arts and humanities are vital to helping young people develop essential skills— not the least of which is the exercise of the imagination. Without the ability to envision, the scientific mind would never think past the world as it exists now in the present.

 

 

In a recent essay, Princeton University Professor Danielle Allen reminds us:

 

 

“That you can’t do well in math and engineering if you can’t read proficiently, and … reading is the province of courses in literature, language and writing. Nor can you do well in science and technology if you can’t interpret images and develop effective visualizations — skills that are strengthened by courses in art and art history.” And, I would argue—by classes in drama.

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Breaking the Block Part 6: Cooking With Commies

I confess to a panic attack the other day when I realized that not only  am I behind on the promised scene, I cannot tamp down my anxiety to write it. The excuses are piling up—production, yadda, hurricane, yadda, production, yadda, nostalgia tour, yadda, yadda, yadda—and now the latest: a nasty flu, which I soothed with multiple toddies  (yes, there was whisky involved, sue me) and homemade soup (leek and potato, recipe to follow. I do try to please.)

 

Chopping leeks had me thinking about what my characters might be having for supper on a Sunday night, and it occurred to me that I ought to scout out a Russian cookbook somewhere, circa 1930 (but in English please!) to get a sense of what Alexei’s mother might put on the table. Then again—a 1930s cookbook would have to be approved by The Party, I imagine, and would a bowl of Communist borscht taste different from the pre-war Tsarist variety? Alexei’s mother in 1930 would be at least 50 and presumably have learned to cook sometime before the turn of the century and very likely, with no assistance from formal recipes at all, so I imagine what she put on the table would be in no way influenced by Party approval but certainly by any going food shortages at the time.

 

All this ruminating takes me back to my basic problem: To write a scene of any authenticity I have to know a little bit of something about the characters and their physical world, and for this play especially, I feel a deep need to immerse myself in the culture and currents of the era. For book research, I have turned to the brilliant Orlando Figes and his phenomenal account of ordinary life in the Soviet era: The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. (Even as I write these words I realize I need even more than that. A book alone will not do it—I need a tangible experience, but a visit to Red Square in not yet in the cards.)

 

Forty pages in, the takeaway from Figes’ work is the extreme intrusion of the Soviet state into the private lives of its people, the widely accepted understanding that privacy and personal happiness are luxuries that the people can no longer afford; their focus must be to build the ideal (Communist) state, and to do so, they must cast aside any notion of a personal life. It is heartbreaking in its idealism, realizing the number of lives shattered by the grinding machinery of Stalin’s police state. Even those of the truest believers.

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Breaking the Block, Part 5: The Exploratory Scene

Exploration is not always going to take you where you expect to go.

We’re back with my series on feeling my way through a draft of a new play. How to break through the block? In this installment, I’m looking at laying the foundations for an exploratory scene that might not necessarily make it into the play. This is my play about a man with an amazing memory, whose strange gift turns out to be a liability in the time and place (1930s Soviet Union) in which he lives.

 

In the opening scene that I posted previously, we are introduced to Alexei in the middle of an exchange between his psychologist and the NKVD agent who is questioning her. He enters the space as if he is coming into Natalia’s office at the hospital, rather than into the dingy office where the interrogation is taking place.

 

This introduction to Alexei and Natlia puts us immediately into the thick of their relationship. It also creates the   advantage of a high-stakes scenario for the doctor.

 

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Now, Who Can’t Relate to This?

Sometimes you just have to open the Jack.

Tamara Federici’s production notes show why some playwrights ought to write fiction and be done with it. I particularly liked this one:

 

Regarding pauses: short pauses are short, three seconds or so, like the time it takes to sneak out a little fart, i.e. Lucia’s line “No, I told you to bring me the head of Cornel, not [little fart] Gary.”

 

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/shouts/2012/09/a-few-notes-about-my-play.html#ixzz278otRb00

 

Breaking the Block Part 4: The Worst Case Scenario

Some years ago I came across a funny yet utterly serious book called “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook” by Joshua Piven—a guidebook on how to survive a series of unlikely disasters—from an avalanche to a shark attack to the crash of a jumbo jet. So I immediately bought a copy for  an artistic director who has suffered through enough near misses over 25 years of running a not-for-profit theatre to write a guidebook of his own. John is also a risk-taker dedicated to new work and has a keen eye  and a lot of good advice for writers.  Early on, his advice to me was that I needed to “raise the stakes” for my characters, another way of saying I needed to put more pressure on them—because it is only under pressure that character is revealed.

 

It is true in life and true in drama that the way we deal with mess says a great deal about who we really are. The same fire that melts the fat hardens the iron—to borrow a borrowed phrase from some advice columnist I used to read religiously like a fool  (she gave a lot of bad advice). But it is also a no brainer to say that any character in desperate pursuit of something is always more interesting than someone who can wait another week or so and won’t suffer for the delay. What audiences want—savages that we are—is to watch someone suffer–intensely. The more agony for the character, the better for the story and the more interested are we in the outcome.

 

James Stewart’s manically lovesick detective in Vertigo comes to mind—it is part of what makes that improbable (and creaky) ghost story so watchable 60 years later. Nobody suffers better than James Stewart, but most of us are not going to get a Jimmy Stewart to play our leading man, so what we lack in spectacular acting talent we have to make up in a riveting script.  (Not that Vertigo isn’t riveting, but you have to admit it does defy logic. Why, for example, would anyone cook up such a convoluted murder plot that hangs on such an unpredictable element—the detective’s inability to overcome his fear of heights? Scotty conveniently falters on the bell tower stairs, but he could just as easily have closed his eyes and charged ahead, at which point the whole plot would unravel. And then there is the murderer’s great good luck in escaping the bell tower undetected—apparently because no one without vertigo bothered to go up the tower steps to investigate what actually caused the victim to fall.)

 

But plot weaknesses aside, Vertigo is a terrific example of a character under extreme pressure. The woman Scotty thinks he adores is actually someone else, hired to use him as a pawn in a plot to fake a suicide as a cover for murder.  And once the real Madelyn dies, clueless Scotty is skinned alive during the inquest that follows, as an investigator coldly concludes that his cowardice was a greater cause of Madelyn’s demise than the mysterious emotional upset that sent her up the tower. Who wouldn’t end up catatonic in a nursing home after that?

 

We have to admit—when it comes to scenarios for losing your sweetheart, this has to be one of the worst case scenarios of all time—as well as one of the more original.

 

This, then is a useful question to keep in mind when sketching out the scenario for your play. Aside from the obvious–have we ever seen this before?–we need to ask ourselves how we can crank up the pressure on our characters.

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Where Does a Song Come From?

While I’m off on a holiday, I get by with a little help from my friends. One is Mike Diehm, a songwriter and poet who accomplishes what I can only dream of—he writes music.  As someone who has no musical talent, I stand amazed by anyone who can pull a few chords together, let alone write a six-minute ballad that lingers in my mind for days. So I asked Mike how he does that, and this is his answer.  Be sure to click on the links below for clips from two of the songs he discusses. D.W.G.

Songwriting Process

The following is from my favorite poet, H.W. Longfellow:

 

Before a blazing fire of wood

Erect a rapt musician stood;

And ever and anon he bent

His head upon his instrument,

And seemed to listen till he caught

Confessions of its secret thought

 

 

From “The Musicians Tale; Prelude; The Wayside Inn”

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

The songwriting process for me is very cathartic. I know I’m not the only songwriter to say that I write songs because there is some inner turmoil going on. I guess that’s why I’ve written so MANY songs, lyrics and poems. I am currently compiling a complete collection of my poetry, short prose and lyric poems. This process has been very therapeutic, something that I need right now. As I go through and do some edits I am realizing that I have been searching for a long, long time for a certain something. That certain something, I now believe, after almost 35 years of writing, has been a search for my SELF. I know myself much better these days, and I like it.

 

For me (as I’m sure a lot of songwriters will tell you) a song does not always begin in the same way. Sometimes I first come up with lyrics, sometimes a particular chord progression or even just one chord or, in some cases, just one NOTE. Other times a song will start with a melody stuck in my head. But no matter how a song comes to me if it feels “labored,” if I have to think too much about it, it will invariably be tossed, ripped up or otherwise discarded. The sixty or seventy songs that remain to this day are all songs that came quite naturally.

 

Mike Diehm, on the guitar

Feeling the muse

A lot of my songs and poetry do not even tell a “story,” instead there are more like moments in time, sometimes down to feelings that come and go in seconds or minutes. As a music lover and intense “listener,” I know I’m not alone in this. It’s like a piece of visual art. Everyone who views (or listens to) a piece of art will get a different feeling. That’s because the song CAME FROM a feeling that might have been very fleeting.

 

My best songs and poetry just “happen.” My best lyrics usually come out, literally, in minutes. The musical part of it can come quickly too, but in a song some arranging is necessary. It’s sort of a mathematical process. Finding a progression that is pleasing to the ear or at least makes sense mathematically.

 

Here are some examples. I’ll start with collaborations:

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Playwriting: Breaking the Block Part 3

Last week I wrote about an exercise from Michael Dixon to help raise the stakes in a scene. And here it is again:

 

1. Put two characters who share something in common in a place neither can leave. Write a scene in which the obstacles and stakes are high and clearly presented.

 

Working on my play about the man with the phenomenal memory, (working title: A Hero of the Revolution) I have decided that because the  patient can leave the doctor’s office if he wishes, there is more mileage to be gained from another, less expected scenario. What I come up with is a scene between an interrogator and his prisoner–in this case, the psychiatrist who is treating our guy. For the sake of the exercise (if not the play), the doctor is a woman, Natalia; the patient is Alexei, and the interrogator a tough character named Kreplev.  What Natalia and Kreplev share is a seething hatred for this man:

 

"Tsar Nicholas II"

The wrong guy at the wrong time

 

Tsar Nicholas II, an inept and bloodthirsty ruler of a nation struggling to emerge from feudalism at the end of the 19th century.

 

If ever there were a nation in need of a revolution it was Russia in 1917 — but ultimately what emerged was a government even more oppressive and bloody than the monarchy it replaced. In the Birth of the Modern, World Society 1815-1830, Historian Paul Johnson explains why, in a nation in which the concept of individual rights did not exist,  Russia’s fate could have been no different.

 

All of that is by way of prologue. For our purposes, we fast forward to the 1930s, when Stalin’s paranoia has kicked into high gear, and here we open our scene:

 

 

 

A HERO OF THE REVOLUTION, SCENE ONE

Lights rise on a drab office with sick green walls and a window overlooking a brick wall that sports an enormous banner picture of Stalin. Only a quarter of Stalin’s face is visible, an eternally staring eye. Kreplev, a government official, sits at a desk and Natalia leans against the wall opposite.

 

Kreplev has several files, which he taps on the tabletop. Each time he taps the files, the sound is like a rifleshot. Tap — tap — tap. Tap — and last tap, a light flashes outside the window — as if a gun has been fired, and the report of the rifle report echoing, echoing, echoing, gone. Natalia reacts to this by moving away from the window, but Kreplev does not respond to the sound. It is as if he so accustomed to the sound of gunfire that he can no longer react.

 

KREPLEV: Now then. I have very little time today, comrade doctor. And I imagine you too have pressing business.

 

Beat

 

KREPLEV: I do my best to keep things cordial. Please never let it be said that I have no respect for your profession.

 

NATALIA: Of all the things on my mind this morning, comrade, that … that is not something I have been troubled by …

 

KREPLEV: I will consider that a humorous rejoinder comrade doctor and not make a record of it.

 

NATALIA: Does it matter? Surely someone is taking notes.

 

KREPLEV: It is always possible. But if we have nothing to hide—then we have nothing to fear.

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Playwriting: Breaking the Block, Part 2

I have a play in my head that has frightened me for a long time because it will require considerable research to write authentically—and the stack of books I’ve accumulated to begin the work is a bit intimidating. Not that I can’t read; I figured that out when I was six, but there is a gap between book knowledge and lived experience—and what will be required ultimately, is an avenue into the lived experience of  individuals who struggle under constant scrutiny from the state. Now I have a great resource that I will talk about in future posts, but for now, let’s return to this fun little exercise:

 

Last week I wrote about Marsha Norman’s five sentences, in which you can get  at the arc of a story by filling in these blanks:

 

  1. This is a play about _____.
  2. It takes place _____.
  3. The main character wants _____ but _____
  4. It starts when __________
  5. It ends when __________.

 

 

For purposes of the exercise, as well as this new play, I have filled in the blanks as follows:

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Why a Play? Are Some Topics Too Hot for Stage?

An invitation arrives in my email to consider writing a new play about  a topic so current that taking it on at all seems  to be almost irreverent, given the anguish that many of the players still feel.  But I am not about to pass up an opportunity to work with the theatre in question, so I sit down to think about the challenge.

 

How do you write about recent tragedies that have shaken a community to its core? The pain is too new for black comedy and seems almost too raw for drama.

 

Dottie Sandusky Couldn't Go There

Dottie just couldn’t go there.

Consider the events that unfolded in State College, Pa., over   the last year. The trial and subsequent conviction of former Penn State Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky on child sex abuse charges–and the vindication of his victims in a scathing report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh–are the stuff of TV police procedurals and movie melodramas.

 

What can theatre bring to the cultural conversation about this almost Olympian tragedy that a TV show or a film could not?

 

Why a play at all?

 

 

A torn-from-the headlines treatment might reduce the story to a straight-line mystery in which the open question is not whether the coach  will be caught and convicted, but exactly how he gets his comeuppance. It would wrap up in 90 minutes, and we could be satisfied that the wheels of justice turn quickly and neatly—with conveniently timed commercial breaks so we can tear away from the drama for another trip to the fridge.

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