LET’S GO ON WITH THE SHOW
What’s more exciting than seeing your words in print? Hearing your words spoken by actors on a stage.
But let’s be honest here. It’s as difficult to get a play produced as it is to get a novel published, and the process is fraught with just as many perils and pitfalls. And yet when the house lights dim and the stage lights come up, and you see actors playing characters you created and speaking your dialogue as if it were theirs, time seems to stand still and the “real” world takes a back seat to what’s happening on stage. That’s the transcendent experience everyone who writes, acts or works in theatre lives for. It doesn’t matter if the theater is a tiny hole in the wall with folding chairs and two spotlights or a state-of-the-art facility seating hundreds, the magic of live performance creates a unique bond between artist and audience.
The playwright, like the director and the technical staff, is never seen. The actors get all the glory—if there is any. You don’t do it for the money; more often than not, there isn’t any (you might be able to make a killing in the theatre, as they say, but you can’t make a living). So why do it? Why write plays at all?
The simplest answer is that you do it because you have to. As with any creative endeavor, you do it because something within you, some inner prompt, tells you to do it, no matter what the outcome or consequence. You do it because you love language, the sound of the human voice, the cathartic power of shared emotion, and the uncanny ability of a good actor to become someone else. You do it because you like to make people laugh, or cry, or think. You do it to appease the entertainer within you, the showman, maybe the shaman. For like a shaman, the playwright must be able to take people on a journey within themselves.
But really, you just do it because you love the theatre. It’s the most ephemeral of art forms. It forces you to be fully present “in the moment” and to say goodbye and move on when the run is over. It’s often a grubby, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sort of experience that takes you far from your familiar comfort zones. The glamor is all make-believe. So what? Watching and listening to actors perform my work has given me moments of mind-bending pleasure. (And the obverse, mind-bending horror when they’ve dropped a line or a page of dialogue.)
I love theatre because as a school kid in Minneapolis I was taken on field trips to The Guthrie Theatre. The Guthrie opened in 1962 and was the first major regional repertory theatre in the U.S. I saw plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, Aeschylus, Sheridan, Brecht and Tennessee Williams, to name a few, performed by actors like Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Len Cariou, Zoe Caldwell, and Brian Bedford. I had no idea what I was seeing and didn’t know the difference between a Greek tragedy and a Restoration comedy. All I knew was that I loved it all and wanted one day to be a part of it.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had some (but by no means all) of my plays produced in a variety of venues, and have worked with some fine actors. I’ve enjoyed all of these experiences because I enjoy the collaborative process. Writing fiction requires working alone for long periods of time, sometimes years. If you’re going to write a novel, you need to withdraw from the world and its incessant demands on your time and concentration. It’s no different when you write a play, but once the production process begins, you have to turn introversion inside out and work with a whole new cast of characters—the director, the actors, the wardrobe and lighting designers, the stage manager, and the tech crew. You have to attend rehearsals and be able to delete and rewrite scenes that don’t go anywhere and dialogue that sounds flat, stilted or unconvincing. Nothing is safe or certain, even on opening night. But everyone’s in it together, trying to pull off a play that you wrote. Talk about sleepless nights and heavy-duty schvitzing!
Irving Berlin summed up the downside of it all: “the headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops…” But as Ethel Merman so buoyantly belts out at the end of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”:
Still you wouldn’t trade it for a pot of gold!
Let’s go on with the show!
My first play, Blood, was an Equity Showcase produced in New York in 1986. It’s a comedy-drama about a gay guy whose best friend, nine months pregnant, comes to live with him after her boyfriend dumps her. The two of them have to contend with his flamboyant lesbian mother, a TV comedy sit-com star who wants to move back to New York from Los Angeles (it’s her apartment); his religious aunt, who arrives in New York from North Dakota in her Winnebago; and his lover, who left him for another man but now wants to return. Amongst other things, Blood dealt with the then-unheard of issue of gay parenting.
I spent five years researching and writing a play (and then a novel) about the short and dramatic life of the 19th-century artist Aubrey Beardsley and his love-hate relationship with Oscar Wilde. Beardsley had a meteoric career—he was famous at 21 for his book illustrations, and infamous at 22 when he illustrated the printed version of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, which had been banned in England because it was considered obscene. When Oscar Wilde, the most flamboyant and famous playwright and personality of the 1890s, was arrested and sent to prison for committing homosexual acts, Beardsley was found guilty by association. Overnight, like Wilde, he became an unemployed and unemployable pariah. The only way he could make a living was by working for a sleazy pornographer and accepting the financial help of a converted Russian Jew intent on converting the dying Beardsley to Catholicism. The play is about Beardsley’s rise and fall, and the sexual and spiritual tug of war for his soul. Oscar Wilde is a major character in the play, and there is also a Pierrot character who serves as Beardsley’s muse and alter ego.
Beardsley has had three productions. The first was in Amsterdam in 1987, produced by the English-speaking American Repertory Theater at the Stadschouwburg, the city’s Civic Theater. The following year, American Repertory Theatre reprised the play, with a new set, costumes, and Aubrey Beardsley, at the Rotterdamse Schouwburg, Rotterdam’s new state-of-the-art theatre complex. After that, Circle-in-the-Square in New York picked Beardsley for their New Plays reading series. A stellar New York cast was lined up but, due to budget cuts, the series was cancelled (but the reading took place anyway, at Sardi’s). Life in the theater! In 1992, Beardsley was given its third production, this time in London, by Stage One. Set and costume designers had a field day with Beardsley and used his black-and-white drawings as their inspiration. I continued my own exploration of Beardsley’s life by writing the novel The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley.
Amsterdam production, Stadschouwburg, 1987
Rotterdam production, Rotterdamse Schouwburg, 1988
London production, Stage One, 1992
In 1988, Katherine Shepard, the actress who played Charlotte, the ever-so-elegant lesbian mother, in Blood, commissioned me to write a short piece that she could perform at the International Conference on Semantics to be held at Yale. I wrote a 15-minute comedy called Tourists for her. In it, she played an archaeologist researching an ancient pyramid in Central America and trying to explain her findings to a bewildered Midwestern housewife visiting the pyramid on a cruise. Later, in Portland, I met an actress named Leigh Clark, who had the uncanny ability to transform herself into different characters in front of your eyes. For Leigh, I expanded the number of tourists in Tourists to four: Bertha Johnson, the Midwestern housewife; Dr. Elizabeth Robbins, the archaeologist; Florine-Mae Rigby, a flighty Southern girl planning her wedding; and Naomi Schwartz, a New Age bank teller from Brooklyn. In 1991 Leigh gave an astonishingly brilliant performance at the Portland Civic Theatre—and nothing of it survives except one cassette tape recording with awful sound quality. Six years later, I turned Tourists into a two-woman show for two wonderful Portland actresses, Wendy Westerwelle and Vana O’Brien. Produced by Cygnet Productions in 1997, the show enjoyed a sold-out run. And I don’t have a single photo to show you.
THE GARDEN PLAYS
The Garden Plays was inspired by my love of gardens and history. I wanted to write three one-act plays, all set in gardens at different points in time, using the same four actors in each. The first play, Barbarians at the Gate, was set in a Roman garden in 408 A.D. when the barbarians were about to invade the city. The second play, Lady Cuddleshank’s Folly, was set in England in 1806 when the English feared an imminent invasion by Napolean. The third, Some Enchanted Evening, was set in contemporary New York. In 1992, the three-act version was given its first reading by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company with Susannah York playing the lead female roles. It was frankly thrilling. But a production didn’t materialize until 1993, and then in Portland, and with the second act deleted (it made the play too long). This was a small, beautiful, and quite powerful production in a lovely little theater located in what had been the Masonic Temple (now part of the Portland Art Museum). The two plays—a garden in Rome in 408 A.D. and a garden in crack-infested New York in 1993—used the same four actors playing ancient and contemporary characters.
Traveling around the state of Oregon as a travel writer, I heard stories about three very different ghosts that reputedly haunted three very different locales. One was the wife of a lighthouse keeper in a remote house on the Oregon coast; one was a young woman who sometimes appeared in a mirror in The Eagle Tavern in North Portland; and the third was a Gold Rush-era cowboy who roamed the Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City. (I actually heard the ghost when I stayed at the Heceta Head lighthouse keeper’s house, which now operates as a B&B.) Since nobody really “knew” who any of these ghosts were, it was up to me to create them. I wrote three short one-acts, called The Keeper, The Cowboy and the Lady of the Night. Four actors played all the different roles, and I wrote a couple of ballads for the folksy narrator who introduces each of the stories. Oregon Ghosts was chosen for the Readings in Rep series at Willamette Repertory Theatre in Eugene, and given the favorable audience response, I thought the theatre would snap it up for production. But no. It was taken on, however, by Lakewood Theatre in Lake Oswego and given a wonderful production at the Fir Acres Theatre at Lewis and Clark College, where it sold out every night. Unfortunately, I have no photos of this production.
UNPRODUCED BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
As with novels, so with plays. You can spend months or years writing and rewriting a novel or a play and never find a publisher or producer for it. That’s the sad truth every artist must live with. But after you’ve invested so much time and effort, it’s hard to put your work aside and forget about it. (And in the case of my first novel, it took some 20 years to find a publisher, but a publisher did appear.) I have two plays that I absolutely love and that have been given fabulous readings by fabulous actors, but they both remain unproduced.
DOMESTIC MANNERS OF THE AMERICANS
This is a play based on the life of Fanny Trollope, an upper-class Englishwoman who traveled to America in 1827, at age 48, with three children, fleeing her husband’s creditors. Fanny, who was the mother of the great novelist Anthony Trollope, thought she was going to a comfortable Utopian community in Tennessee founded by a fiery young Scotswoman named Francis Wright. When she arrived, she was appalled at the conditions and fled to Cincinnati, where she was stranded and penniless for three years and had to survive on her wits. When she finally returned to England, Fanny Trollope became the first woman to write a travel guide to America. Published in 1832, Domestic Manners of the Americans looked at life in America with a less than flattering, and often caustic, eye. The book became an instant bestseller in England and Europe, but in America Fanny was burned in effigy and copies of her “inflammatory” book were thrown on the bonfire. The play follows Fanny’s journey from upper -class gentility in England to homespun discomfort in America as she confronts the foibles, fancies and hypocrisies of a new “democratic” society that is only free for some. In 2013, the play was given a superlative reading by actors in Portland.
THE DADS TRY TO GET MARRIED
This play was written in a white-hot rage fueled by events that took place in Oregon. In 2004, Multanomah County in Portland announced that it would start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Over 3,000 gay and lesbian couples raced down to get married. After a public ballot measure, Oregon banned same-sex marriage and invalidated all the marriages that had taken place, sending the couples a form letter with a refund for the marriage license. It was another insulting and degrading example of legalized homophobia in a state that had been torn apart by anti-gay battles and ballot measures in the 1990s (I wrote about that in my novel Queer Corners).
The Dads Try to Get Married is about a long-partnered, middle-class couple who have adopted (or rather, one of them has adopted, because they cannot adopt jointly as a married couple) several troubled children and are raising a multi-ethnic family. In the first act, they have just learned that they can get married and are rushing to do so before the window of opportunity closes. In the second act, they learn that their marriage has been ruled null and void. They are suddenly unmarried and have to deal with the confusion and uncertainty it causes their kids, and with their own anger. It was given a superb reading in 2011 in New York by TOSOS Theatre company.