Unexpected Impacts, Part II

The Burlington Players of Burlington, Mass., took a trip to the State House in Boston July 26  as guests of the Massachusetts Legislature. The occasion: The community theatre troupe had walked off with the highest prize in its field a month before—Best Show Award at the 2013 American Association for Community Theatre (AACT) annual festival on June 23.  The play was RADIUM GIRLS, and the accomplishment was singular in a number of ways.

 

996538_450175341746415_1105337355_n

Team Radium at the Massachusetts State House

Director Celia Couture tells me this event marked the first time in 20 years that any Eastern Massachusetts company had won the top award at AACT. Not only that, to get to the competition in Carmel, Indiana, the all volunteer cast and crew of  27 had to raise $44,0000 to cover the costs of travel, housing, and  conference fees, as well as shipping sets, costumes, and props required to perform their 60 minute cutting of my play. That figure, she notes, is a number of times greater than the actual production budget for the full-length play in 2011, which Burlington had produced to wide acclaim.  The success of that production prompted the company to take the play to state and regional competitions.

 

The day the competition production won the  nationals, my in-box on Facebook was aflutter with excited messages from cast members who’d friended me months earlier, to let me know of their triumph and thank me again for the script.

 

By the various accounts I’ve heard, competition at AACT was fierce—Radium Girls received more nominations than any other production—out of 12 shows in the festival—-including best actor and best director— and placed in none, until the final moment, when the award for best show was announced at the Saturday night ceremony that concluded the week.

 

Burlington Players production of Radium Girls

Michael Govang and Craig Howard in Burlington Players production of Radium Girls

The company’s triumph offers a lot to reflect on, considering my initial reluctance to approve a cut-down version for competition. I’m accustomed to these requests, but invariably they come from high schools and the understanding usually is that what is presented is a selection of scenes. But for some reason I agreed to the cuts Celia proposed, and the result has been to create an opportunity for another troupe of artists to carry on with a play they had fallen in love with. And it is not an easy script. I still believe the play requires a smart, firm director to move it and keep it on point – if I could do it over, I think I’d reshape the first act—but even the weakest productions I’ve seen over the years have managed to convey the strength of the story itself.  It says something that Radium Girls is approaching 300 productions since its premiere at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey more than a decade ago. And I’m continually amazed at the fierce devotion it seems to inspire in the actors and directors who’ve undertaken the challenge.

 

 

 

One of the most eloquent testimonials to the play was posted by Burlington cast member Nick Bennett-Zendzian. The night of the big win he wrote this on his Facebook page:

 

All of my theatre friends (which would be most of you) know that feeling of finality that comes with the closing performance of a show you’ve been working on. There’s the realization that each moment you are having on stage that night is the last time you will ever experience that particular moment. You think of the months you spent working on that scene, and then once it’s over, that scene is done, and you’re not going to be visiting it again. It’s a very bittersweet feeling. … It’s come to the point where I literally cannot imagine my life without any of these people. From the moment we were all cast, we clicked. We celebrated each other’s triumphs, and worked together to overcome the difficulties we faced on the journey. … It was a shining example of what theatre is supposed to be, and has become the standard I will use to measure the success of all the shows I do in the future. … This show has changed me for the better, and I will always, *always* be grateful for that experience.

 

In playwriting, we often measure our successes in the number and status of productions, thinking that if we aren’t produced at big LORT theatres, if we can’t get an agent, don’t see our work celebrated in American Theatre, can’t get the lit manager of the small storefront company to call us back—then our work has no value. We forget how very individual responses are to the plays we write. The fact is, the work is out there, and when any company takes it up and embraces it the way this company embraced Radium Girls, the result is transformative—not just for the audiences that see the play, but for the actors and other artists that work on it.

 

I never met any of the folks involved in the Burlington show – but they have reached out to me, and I’m grateful that they thought to bring me into the loop to share their progress, frustrations, and ultimate triumph with the play. I’m many years removed from the struggle of writing it, but these kinds of experiences restore my sense of balance. Success is not always measured in the ways we think it ought to be, but we are not always in control of our theatrical fortunes. I don’t know why professional theatre never embraced the play — well I do know why, it’s the cast size — but the fact that Radium Girls has had a long life in the amateur market is an amazing thing to me. I’ve written before of the psychic rewards of hearing from excited actors who worked on a successful production. But it’s good to be reminded again of what that all means.

 

Radium Girls took three years of my life; it was the result of a long-time obsession, and I think the fact that I poured my heart and soul into it is reflected in its pages. That the play has been a vehicle for the artistic triumphs and personal growth of other artists around the country is a gratifying realization. It shows that when we sit down to write, we can never know what impact our efforts will have  in the end, but above all else, it is important to have faith in ourselves and soldier on; if we believe strongly in the work, and if we are brave enough to invest our hearts in it, then  it will find its place in the world somehow and its meaning will be deeply felt.

 

Thanks for the Burlington crew for allowing me to learn this lesson once again.

The Troublesome 9.7 Percent and the Break-Through Play

Caridad Svich invited me to participate in the Artistic Innovation blog salon that she is curating for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas). The post below is cross-posted from the salon and can be found at the TCG Circle here.

 

Playwright Caridad Svich asks how a path can be made for innovative theatre artists.

 

That’s a question for the ages—because every age has redefined the form and function of theatre. But in our age and in this culture–so driven by commercial considerations that most playwrights cannot rely on their craft for a living—the question is particularly acute.  We all know that the American theatre faces a crisis of poverty—but it is not just a poverty of resources. It is also a poverty of ideas and confidence. And this poverty forces even the non-profit theatre to obsess with finding the next big hit, the next hot writer, and to find refuge in the next Big Name New Play—that one with all the buzz.

 

 

The reason for this can be summed up in a single statistic: 9.7 percent.

 

 

That is the percentage of the U.S. population that attended a live performance by a not-for-profit professional theatre company in 2010, according to the National Arts Index 2012, a survey of arts attendance in 81 markets. Based on TCG estimates, that figure represents some 31 million Americans who attended professional theatre outside of New York City. That’s down from a peak of 34 million in 2003—and for the record, does not include attendance at Broadway tours. Recent figures from the National Endowment for the Arts tell a similar story—that attendance at live professional theatre has eroded in troubling ways. But of course we do not need a survey to tell us what we have witnessed with our own eyes.

Continue reading

The Christmas Card from Hell

I got a Christmas card today from the child molester’s wife.

 

This is not an unusual event. For the past several years, this woman has persisted in sending me birthday cards, Christmas cards, Easter greetings—this despite what should have been a clear directive to her years ago never to contact me again. Yet she persists.

 

For years I evaded her ridiculous missives, but somewhere along the line one of my misguided relatives gave her my current address and so, for the past few years, I have suffered through a series of “greeting cards” from this woman. Usually I throw them away. But tonight, for some reason, I am moved to action.

 

The door that wasn’t opened …

You see, I have the misfortune of being related to her husband and, thus, I was one of his targets. I prefer “target” to “victim” because I decided a long time ago that what he did to me was not going to define me forever. And if I was a victim once, I am no longer. But God knows how many more children have come into his line of fire—how many of his own children? We cannot begin to know; his life is a lie wrapped in denial, embroiled in deception. We can guess, but we don’t have the luxury of the confirmation. Once, long ago, I confronted him in the belief that I owed it to his children to try to stop him. But I could not stop him. The lie was too strong.

 

But his wife is a great curiosity to me. When we undertook to confront him, my sister and I,  in the process, we confronted her as well. Her anger was a sight to behold. She literally shook with rage. Not at him, of course. At us. For daring to tell. For daring to say what had happened and demanding—how dare we demand it!—an apology.

 

We never got it.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Salvation Road Redux

Salvation Road‘s run at the Steinhardt School of New York University ended abruptly with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29. Compared to the loss of life, injury, damage to property, chaos and disruption visited upon the good people of Manhattan–one friend I know of is still without heat two weeks later–curtailing the run of a play on a college campus is really no loss at all.  Disappointed as I am not to have a full run, I feel worse for the students who worked so hard to bring the play to life; they threw themselves into the project with such enthusiasm, I know they must have been deeply disappointed that they could not restage the play at a later time. But alas, the Pless Black Box was booked with the next show coming in, and there was simply no space to perform.

 

Salvation Road at Walden Theatre, directed by Alec Volz

For me, the play moves on now to another production, this time at Walden Theatre in Louisville, Ky., where a cast of younger actors tackles the story of two guys in search of a girl who does not want to be separated from her guru. The production is Walden’s entry into Louisville’s Slant Culture Theatre Festival, described as “a laboratory for uncommon works” and hosted by Walden. Salvation Road will run in rep with The Debate Over Courtney O’Connell by Mat Smart, produced by Theatre [502] of Louisville; The Man With the Flower in His Mouth, by Luigi Pirandello, produced by Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company, and 5 Things, a devised piece by Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble, among other works.

 

Like NYU, the Walden Theatre is producing a large-cast version of the play. But this time, instead of college students playing high school age characters, the actors are area high school students who study in Walden’s conservatory program. This is a terrific opportunity for me to see how the play works as a youth theatre piece—and how well it is received by audiences of that age.

 

When I first wrote the play, I thought the biggest barrier to production by schools would be the subject matter–religion. But I was advised by a  high school drama teacher that cast size, more than subject matter, would be the bigger concern. Thus, I expanded what I had intended as a five-actor piece to a 90-minute play for 12 to 16 performers. However, the five-actor — actually now a six-actor — version still lives. During a workshop at NYU in the spring, I worked on that smaller cast version–simultaneously developing it with the 16-actor play, though we ultimately presented the six-actor version in public staged readings in June.

 

The differences? The larger piece creates a stronger sense of place; the atmosphere is richer. But the smaller cast play, requiring the cast to double into nine speaking parts, is a spare, stark telling of the story that for me, draws the focus more sharply. These are two different experiences of the story, and for schools that are interested in the issues raised by the play, involving more students in the telling makes a great deal of sense. But I still believe Salvation Road can find an audience in mainstream theatres and for that reason, I look forward to the production of the small cast version at Seton Hill University in April.

 

Salvation Road Opens Tonight

Salvation Road opens tonight with a cast of thousands ….

 

It has been a long process developing this play, a comic drama about a boy searching for a sister who has disappeared into a fundamentalist cult.

 

Originally a one-act for three actors (hated that version) the play underwent a massive rewrite in the summer/fall of 2008. I got up my nerve to stage the retooled one-act version, but on advice of a high school drama director — the fabulous Jennie Eisenhower — I developed it into this version, a full-length for 15 actors.  Jennie did not think the subject matter would intimidate a lot of schools, but the cast size–five to eight actors–would discourage a lot of high schools. A cast of 15 to 16 would be a much easier sell. With that in mind, I revised the play into a large-cast version. It subsequently received a developmental workshop at The Utah University Youth Theatre in 2011 as part of the American Alliance for Theatre in Education’s Playwrights in Our Schools Program.  This year the play was accepted for development during NYU’s New Plays for Young Audiences workshop at Provincetown Playhouse this summer. Ironically, the Provincetown project focused a full-length with a small cast (six actors doubling into nine parts).  This is the first time I’ve written a play with two versions–one aimed at professional production, and the other aimed at the youth theatre market.

 

 

The  Theatre Department of the Steinhardt School at New York University trains drama teachers — and there could be no better match for this play than a premiere of the full-length youthversion in a departmental production. It is a challenging topic for young actors and for their audiences, but I strongly believe young people have more going on inside than many of their teachers, and sometimes parents, appreciate.  My hope is that schools across the country will not be put off by the subject matter, but will embrace this play as an excellent opportunity for their students to explore issues of faith, spirituality, conformity, and control through the story of two boys caught up in the cult phenomenon.

 

The next stop for Salvation Road is a production at Walden Theatre in Louisville, Ky., Nov. 8-18. I’ll be going out there for a post-show discussion.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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:

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Playwrights Interview Playwrights: Me and Jackie

The wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton has included me in her series on women playwrights in D.C.

My newest best friend

You can check out the interview here.

Thank you Jackie for thinking of me and including me in such illustrious company as  Laura Zam, Karen Zacarias, Renee Calarco, and Jennifer Nelson.

And you can check out Jackie  here.

And do check her out because she is one cool cat. She would be cool even if she didn’t write about me.

Copyright © 2017 DW Gregory. All rights reserved.  |  www.dwgregory.com