Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Ghost of Plays Past...

I've been fortunate enough to have had about 15 or so of my plays done over the years. The first was a play called Closin' Time way back in 1983 in Springfield, MO. Like most young playwrights, I set it in a dive bar. For some reason novice playwrights tend to think profound and enlightening things happen in bars. One of my early mentors, Dr. Robert Bradley, gave me some very practical advice about writing for the stage. He said, "What makes this night different from other nights? If there's nothing cataclysmic about this day or this night you're writing about, why write it?" He was right. Nonetheless, I set it in a bar. I discovered there is a different thrill to writing than there is to acting. As an actor one's choices and talent are on display. As a writer one's very intellect itself is on trial.

That play is so amusing as I think back on it. As I recall, it was about a young bartender trying to make a choice about either leaving for college or staying and working in the bar for the rest of his life. Some of the dialogue made no sense whatsoever. I was tremendously influenced at that time in my life by Tennessee Williams. I suspect I'm not alone there. So now and then one of the three characters in the play would gallop off on a flight of pseudo-poetry about jasmine and sweating and black birds and Oedipus complexes and what have you. For no reason at all.

The first play I had produced in NYC was called Changing It to Brando, a piece about two young guys that have just moved to NYC to become actors but in the final analysis are actually too scared to leave their apartment. So they live this fantasy life, making up stories and events and living their entire existence in the small, cramped apartment they share. It is notable for a couple of things...one, my friend John Bader directed it (quite competently, I might add) and two, I learned a lesson about casting friends in my plays. I cast a guy I worked with, another waiter, in one of the roles (I took the other one). Even though this guy was a delight to be around, a fun guy, really smart, he was a terrible actor. Froze instantly like a rabbit in headlights. "Tharn," I believe is what Richard Adams calls it. Bader begged me to fire him. But I didn't because I couldn't stand the idea of hurting his feelings. The play suffered and I learned to never do that again.

The following year two of my plays were done in NY - both surprisingly successful. Golden Eggs, a one-person show directed by a fine, sensitive director named Jeff Wood and DAD/SONS, also directed by Jeff and co-starring my good buddy and forever-working actor, Brad Greenquist. The latter of the two was essentially a long one-act and was up with another one-act by the writer, Jim Uhls, who went on to write Fight Club featuring another Springfield native, Brad Pitt.

A few more plays in NY, some good, some not-so-good, and skip ahead to Rochester, NY. I was seeing a volcanic actress, Korean-American, and decided to write a play for her. It was called Barking at Lighted Windows. She was very good in it. And even now, as I look back on it, it was not a bad piece. We, however, were not so good together...oil and water. The explosive personal relationship we shared spilled over onto the stage. It produced some good theatre but bad karma.

A short time after that I made a decision to leave the theatre behind and do something "important" with my life...so I went back to school and eventually became a drug and alcohol counselor in Chicago. But of course like any great truth in a life, I couldn't leave the theatre behind and eventually wrote another play called Praying Small. The play, not surprisingly, is about recovery from addiction.

It has had a remarkable life thus far, in fact we're doing it at NoHo in April (See poster at right). Submitted for the Pulitzer, lots of other things, and I'm happy with it. For whatever reason, it tends to touch people where they live. I'm proud of it. And in the upcoming production I've been persuaded to take the lead role myself. Intimidating and exhilarating all at once.

But before that one, this one - From the East to the West. I'm also acting in that one with a bunch of gun-slinging, hungry, young actors here in LA. They are a talented bunch and already, early in rehearsal, I am beginning to realize I can't get away with any "tricks." These guys are too honest for that. I'll look like a bad soap actor next to them if I try it. I'm pleased about that. I like an acting challenge now and then. At some point I'll blog about these extraordinary bunch of performers. But right now I'm just trying to keep up with them. Being young and full of talent is, sadly, far different from being older and full of talent. These guys are so good they're still surprising themselves.

Rehearsal tonight. Tons of lines. Remembering the blocking. Toning down the performance. Trying to multi-task on stage.

When I act in a piece I've written it is important to keep in mind why I wrote it in the first place. That is to say, I harken back to those wonderful words of advice from Bob Bradley - "Why is this night different from other nights?" Great and simple words, those. Reminds me of a very basic truth about theatre. It concerns and it thrives upon the extraordinary, the awesome, the unexpected beauty of life. There is no room for the mundane in the theatre. There may be moments of it on the journey to the spectacular, but they are fleeting. Those moments are skipped over on the path to what makes this night different from all others. So I look forward to tonight, this different night, when I'm surrounded by artists that still surprise themselves.

See you tomorrow.